Fallen Leaders Remembered
I’m Not Your Negro
Dir. Raoul Peck, USA/France/Belgium/Switzerland, 2016, 93 minutes
At the Toronto International Film Festival TIFF
(soon at the New York Film Festival NYFF)
James Baldwin (1924-87) was a voice of conscience for the United States, a scourging voice much of the time, and he didn’t pull his punches. Although he never led a movement, Baldwin led a conversation, or many conversations, about race and society. He even wrote film reviews. Nobody’s perfect.
Raoul Peck has found inspiring archival footage from Baldwin, and woven it, along with that of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, into a mix of meditation and declamation. If you don’t believe Baldwin’s arguments about inequality and exclusion, you can’t refute the arguments of dead bodies in front of you.
Beck doesn’t give you an exegesis of Baldwin the writer and public intellectual. For those who want that, and let’s hope there are a lot of those readers, there’s plenty of Baldwin to read. But Peck gives you the eloquent Baldwin, the impassioned Baldwin and the memorable Baldwin. Listening to him today, there’s not much about what he says that you can fault, and there’s not much that’s out of date, fifty years later, even with a black man as president. Just look at the black bodies shot by police.
“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it,” Baldwin says, “how precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself with your situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think that I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.”
I’m Not Your Negro takes its title from Baldwin’s questioning of the special status that well-meaning whites tried to accord him, and it’s drawn from his recollections of Malcolm, King and Evers in Remember This House, a memoir that was unfinished when he died in 1987. (McGraw-Hill sued unsuccessfully to get its advance back after Baldwin died of cancer. Talk about monstrous.)
The film tends more toward evocation than analysis, yet even as a monument to honor Baldwin it avoids the stolid heaviness of much of Peck’s earlier work. But there are some facts worth noting. We should not forget that Malcolm X was killed by Black Muslims and that Robert F. Kennedy (whom Peck also portrays admiringly) was more rhetoric than anything else when he ran.
Yet we see Baldwin speak with great eloquence – on the Dick Cavett Show (remember that?) – even when he’s challenged by a professor of philosophy from Yale on the centrality of race as an issue confronting US society at the time. Baldwin’s response, explaining how it defined him, like it or not, should be out there as a trailer.
You’ll see appearances by Baldwin and others on the Dick Cavett Show, which will make you wonder about the expansion of public broadcasting – into what? Not to create a monument to Cavett, who’s still around, but who of any stature is out there on PBS today? Maybe I’m Not Your Negro will get there eventually.
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