DocWatch – Berlinale — James Baldwin, the Exile, Is Back

The Man Who Spent His Later Life in Europe, Is on Screens in the USA

 I Am Not Your Negro

Dir. Raul Peck, USA, 2016, 93 minutes  (Magnolia)

I Am Not Your Negro was deservedly nominated for Best Documentary.

No one expected the film to win, but it’s fitting that the doc was at the Berlinale. James Baldwin (1924-87) spent most of his later life in Europe. Being heir to the figures under consideration in this film came with risks.

Better Late Than Never

Better Late Than Never

Note that Raul Peck included footage of protests in the United States in his film based on the fragments of Baldwin’s recollection of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers.

For those who want more of Baldwin’s oratory than could be fit into the film, consider his address to the Cambridge Union in a debate with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1965. Baldwin also addressed the National Press Club, toward the end of his life, in 1986.

Here’s my review that ran on KSFR Radio in Santa Fe NM last week.

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The writer James Baldwin has been dead for thirty years. Baldwin, his oratory, his ideas and his anger have been brought back to life in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro by Raul Peck.

If you remember James Baldwin, you remember his voice – urbane, insistent, indignant, and eloquent. Baldwin wrote on everything, from politics to race to literature to cinema to his own life. He was that rarity in public life, a focused listener who could take in someone’s argument, and then take it apart.

Raul Peck’s powerful documentary that will help resurrect Baldwin from the grey forgetfulness of history, I am Not Your Negro, began with Baldwin’s unfinished book, called Remember This House, about his recollection of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, all leaders, all murdered in the 1960’s.

Samuel L. Jackson reads from that book, with footage taking us back to Baldwin’s life and to his voice, and to the lives of the three men he wrote about. Images also race ahead, to the time since Baldwin died, to the years of a black president.

Baldwin saw the tragedy of his own time, when charismatic leaders were murdered. He was black and gay, and spent most of his time in Europe. He  died in France in 1987.

Baldwin trained as a minister, and sometimes said he was forced into the role of being an Old Testament prophet. In I Am Not Your Negro it’s not so much a question of him being proven right, but that so much of what he said then still rings true today.

It comes down to a simple proposition.  Would the lives of one-ninth of the American population be so neglected if those people were white?  Or you could ask today – would police be shooting so many unarmed people if those people were white?

Think of Baldwin at Martin Luther King’s funeral. He says, “if I began to weep, I would not be able to stop.”

This is a rich collage of a film, drawing on imagery from the civil rights movement, and from Hollywood, from the tumultuous 1960’s, and from the American South where Baldwin had reservations about returning.

It’s a film of strong angry statements like – “the history of America is the history of the American Negro.” Is this an exaggeration? As Baldwin might say, it depends who you are.

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