In an interview he gave in the late 1960s, James Baldwin was asked why he spent such a long time between novels. "I'm that kind of writer, there's no answer to that," he said. "Everybody works the way he can work." It was a standard—even pedestrian—writer's response.
But then, after the slightest of pauses, he added to it: "I must point out, though, too, that for the last few years I've been working between assassinations. And that doesn't make it any easier, either."
That answer was quintessential Baldwin, capturing the tensions that he explored so fearlessly throughout his career: tensions between the personal and the political, between writing and activism, between the vulnerable man and the vengeful prophet. Engaging, passionate, and always the smartest man in the room, he was a fantastic interview (which partially accounts for why there is so much footage of him in existence). But, in every one of these clips, you can also see that he made interviewers—and they were almost always white interviewers—uncomfortable. With one question his eyes might blaze with an Old Testament wrath, and with the next he might all but disappear behind an impossibly wide, sadly wise, Cheshire Cat's grin. Throw him a boilerplate question about his writing methods, and he was likely to open up an associative abyss of pain, anger, and accusation, and just dare you to look into it. In person—as in his writings—he never sugar-coated, he never prevaricated, and he never, ever let anyone off the hook.
Neither does director Raoul Peck, who captures Baldwin's spirit so powerfully in his Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Though it borrows freely from a number of other Baldwin works—most notably his 1976 critique of Hollywood, The Devil Finds Work—Peck's film draws most of its material from a book Baldwin never finished, and in fact barely began: a book about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., which would have been called Remember This House. Baldwin—who, as he says in the film, moved through the civil rights era more as witness than actor—had been friends with all three men, and saw all three assassinated, and he ambitiously dreamt of exploring the terrible lessons of their parallel journeys for the next generation.
"I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other," he wrote his agent, laying out his plan for the book. "As, in truth, they did…and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives."
We can only regret that this book—which could have synthesized not just Baldwin's experience in the 1960s, but all of ours—never came to pass. (Just as we can regret that Baldwin's screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X was never produced: "working between assassinations," he was struggling with it, and fighting with Hollywood producers about it, when news reached him of King's death.) But this ambitious, overwhelming book never materialized: when Baldwin died, in 1987, he left behind just 30 pages of notes for Remember This House.
Now, Peck has taken those notes—gifted to him for this purpose by Baldwin's younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart—and used them as both script and inspiration for a film that is—like Baldwin himself—beautiful, and wrenching, and almost playfully confrontational.
Mr. Peck gives sole writing credit to Baldwin, for nearly every word we hear on-screen is his, read either in his own (inimitable) voice, or in a beautifully modulated narrative performance by Samuel L. Jackson. (And how it would have pleased Jimmy Baldwin—who loved movies, and who met nothing but resistance from Hollywood throughout his career—to finally have his name on such an uncompromising film.) But it is Mr. Peck who has shaped this material into a film that is hard to describe, but impossible to ignore.
For I Am Not Your Negro is a film that challenges and ultimately eludes easy definition. It is not, really, a film about James Baldwin's life, or even his writings. (For that, I recommend—and I can't recommend it highly enough—Karen Thorsten's 1989 documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.) Neither is it, in the end, a collaborative completion of the book Baldwin tried to write about the three slain civil-rights martyrs: though we see all three men, and hear some of how Baldwin saw each of them, Peck wisely resists trying to force the coherent, comprehensive narrative about them that Baldwin himself was never able to shape.
Indeed, I Am Not Your Negro scarcely feels like a "documentary" in the traditional sense of the word, for what it documents is not facts but something far more elusive and essential. It is a visual essay, a tone poem in prose and images, an almost musical montage of point and counterpoint, of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In Peck's film, Baldwin's timeless prose becomes the connective tissue for a meditation on white crimes and black struggle, linking America's distant past, recent history, and all-too familiar present so seamlessly that this very timelessness becomes, in itself, an accusation. The unparalleled clarity of Baldwin's articulation of the African-American experience is as applicable to still photographs from the Civil War era, as it is to news footage from the Civil Rights Era, as it is to images of police brutality in the 21st century. And so Peck and his editor, Alexandra Strauss, weave all these images together into a single, terrible visual tapestry, so that we can see it, as we should, as a whole continuum of unspeakable cruelty and unpaid debt. The film leads us to recognize, for example, how we need only substitute the word "Ferguson" for "Birmingham" in this observation of Baldwin's:
"White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still less to act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country. They don’t want to realize that there is not one step, morally or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles."
And it is appropriate, too—both to Baldwin's personality and to his purpose—that I Am Not Your Negro is so self-consciously a movie about movies. For Baldwin wrote extensively about film, and was a canny and ruthless critic of how movies portray and perpetuate "the American self-evasion, which is all that this country has as a history." Peck gives us scenes from cinematic depictions of racial relationships that Baldwin wrote about—and mostly found sinisterly disingenuous—like In the Heat of the Night, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; we also get examples of how white America constructs the necessary myths about itself in films of John Wayne murdering native Americans, or in candy-colored paeans to white experience like The Pajama Game. (Baldwin called Gary Cooper and Doris Day "two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen.") Peck uses these films—and other examples from across the breadth of our multi-media culture—sometimes as direct commentary, but just as often as disorienting, almost playful counterpoint, emphasizing how, as Baldwin said, "in this country, for a dangerously long time, there have been two levels of experience."
I can't pretend to be objective about I Am Not Your Negro. I fell deeply in love with Baldwin's writing in college—a year or two after his 1987 death—and have read him, and missed him, ever since. The first conversation my wife and I ever had was about Baldwin, and last year we worked some of his words into our wedding vows. And, over the past few years, as ubiquitous cameras and social media have elevated this country's traditions of racial injustice and police brutality into the (white) social consciousness, I have returned again and again to Baldwin's writings, and wished he were still here to articulate and challenge our terrible reality.
So if I Am Not Your Negro did nothing but introduce James Baldwin to those who had never encountered him, and remind those of us who had how much we need him, it would well be worth—forgive the phrasing—the price of the ticket. But Raoul Peck has done much more than that, bringing an artistic passion, poetry, and clarity of vision that complement Baldwin's own. The result is one of the most powerful and provocative films of the year, both as a cultural document and as a cinematic experience.
I do not envy the Academy voters deciding between the documentaries this year. They will be asked to choose between Ava Duvernay's stunningly compressed primer on racial injustice, The 13th; Ezra Edelman's eight-hour exploration on the intersectionalities of race, gender, and justice in O.J.: Made in America; and Peck's beautiful, evocative, visual tone poem of unignorable insights and undeniable truths. All of them are brilliant; all of them are powerful; all of them are important and essential viewing at this moment in history. As Baldwin says in I Am Not Your Negro, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."