History is not the past. It is the present. We carry out history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.
When the above words of James Baldwin are spoken by narrator Samuel L. Jackson, their resonance to the documentary but, more importantly, to the state of America couldn’t be more profound. A posthumous collaboration, as Baldwin passed away in 1987, Raoul Peck’s latest documentary I Am Not Your Negro goes beyond being a mere biography. Using Baldwin’s unfinished work Remember My House and his uncollected writings The Cross of Redemption, the documentary doesn’t only build the moral, intellectual and emotional figure of Baldwin but use his reflections to explore the current state of America. For Baldwin’s work doesn’t capture a marginal, racial edge to the country, it seeks to understand and expose the soul of America- to forefront race as integral to the country’s past, present and its future. This is a Baldwin essay evocatively brought to life in cinematic form: both homage and critique, elegiac yet timely, lyrical and yet deeply perceptive.
It begins in 1957, when Baldwin returned from self-imposed exile in Paris after leaving the America at the age of 24. Spurred on by the growing Civil Rights movement and a haunting photograph of Dorothy Counts being mobbed on her first day at a desegregated school, Baldwin returns to bear witness to the often conflicted currents of the movement. Taking his cue from Baldwin, Peck organises his reflections around three recognisable figures of the era: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Here Baldwin’s ‘witnessing’ as he refers to it, articulates the divergence of their views, his intimate personal friendship with each man and his sharp political critique of the so-called ‘Negro Problem’ and the fantasy of ‘whiteness’. He dispenses with easy justifications and diversions from these issues, revealed in his tense interview with a white academic on the Dick Cavett Show. Justifications and evasions used in that interview, such as discussing improving conditions for African-Americans and denying ‘seeing race’ are still sustained today, especially in the pernicious defence of ‘reverse racism’.
One thread of Baldwin and Peck’s documentary examines the pathology of ‘whiteness’. Baldwin explores how ‘whiteness’ is a fantasy created by white people and their societal institutions to both protect and empower. He weighs its ability to provide for and delude white people (primarily) against the crimes it has perpetuated and the (consistently young) lives it has destroyed, not merely in the United States but across the world. Most powerfully, he speaks of the total moral abnegation that white people have undertaken and their projection either about or onto black people. He reorientates the focus of the ‘Negro Problem’ away from those labelled to, rightfully, the labeller and the institutions that maintain it. As he stated in his 1963 interview: ‘What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it– then you’ve got to find out why.’ This still remains the active task of white people today, for as Baldwin concludes ‘the future of the country depends on’ answering that question. It is not solely a question for America however, but the entire Western hemisphere.
Another thread interlaced with this examination is Baldwin’s own personal journey back into America- his remorse and deep attachment to the family, friends and country from which he left. It is an extremely intimate account, describing the men and women he debated with, cried with and fought with during these turbulent years. Baldwin explores the suffering, love, optimism and frailty of human connection which are, again, set against their superficial manifestations from white America. He probes beneath the nation that values mere ‘simplicity’ and ‘sincerity’ as virtues and articulates with a quiet, fierce honesty the complexity, confusion, anguish and anger of his countrymen. Crucially Baldwin reinforces a much higher value for human integrity: responsibility. The two threads weave together on this particular point, for Baldwin implores all of us to choose responsibility over protection; to live in reality and not fantasy. It is both a personal admission and a societal necessity.
The salience of Baldwin’s insights are matched perfectly by Peck’s distinctive documentary style: a fusion of archive and contemporary news footage and 50s, 60s and 70s mainstream American cinema. Interestingly, Peck colourises much of archive material of Baldwin’s interviews and Civil Rights demonstrations and then drains the colour from current footage of protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and Florida. As such, the past and present become almost indistinguishably intermingled and interlinked through the montage. Doing so states unambiguously that the issue of race and the struggle against racism remain fundamental to American identity and society. Uniquely, Peck removes the signification of context (its period markers and sense of chronology) to reinforce Baldwin’s key reflection: that our history is not behind us but with us. Excerpts and sequences from the films of Gary Cooper, Doris Day and Sidney Poitier are also played for ironically revealing effect: the dreamy, supine Hollywood musicals and gallant Westerns form the delusional, self-indulgent landscape of white fantasy. It is a clash of narration and image that peels back to a necessary but uncomfortable truth. Only in certain moments does Peck leave Baldwin’s precise narration ambiguous. While figures and movements like Bobby Kennedy and the NAACP are taken to task, the election of Barack Obama and his legacy are left quite open to interpretation. While remarkably different from Baldwin’s actual voice, Jackson’s narration is unrecognisably but aptly sombre and penetrating, deliberate and eloquent. Baldwin’s prose comes to life through Jackson’s voice; expressing its joy, righteous anger and melancholy.
Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is not only an exponent of Baldwin’s thoughts and experiences, but a critical examination of America itself. Like Baldwin’s moral and intellectual spirit, it implores all of us to look at ourselves and our society with unwavering honesty and commitment, especially for those like myself and other white viewers who have privilege based in fantasy and subjugation. It feels apt to conclude on Baldwin’s words, not merely as a statement that summarises the essence of Peck and Baldwin’s critique, but as a moral imperative to the reader:
You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage: you never had to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.