The fire this time

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Black His­tory Month gets a bolt of light­ning from the great 20th-cen­tury writer James Bald­win, whose words, along with a trove of film and tele­vi­sion clips, have been culled by the doc­u­men­tary film­maker Raoul Peck to cre­ate a por­trait of Amer­ica’s racist his­tory through Bald­win’s eyes. In the film, I Am Not Your Ne­gro, Peck takes as his start­ing point the notes and open­ing pages of a book Bald­win never fin­ished: Re­mem­ber This House, about his mur­dered friends Medgar Evers, Mal­colm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The pow­er­ful nar­ra­tion, read by Samuel L. Jackson, is taken en­tirely from Bald­win’s writ­ings. On the cover is a photo of Bald­win from the film, © Bob Adel­man, cour­tesy Mag­no­lia Pic­tures.

The open­ing cred­its for this dev­as­tat­ing and in­spir­ing movie read “A film by Raoul Peck, Writ­ten by James Bald­win.” The text, nar­rated with sen­si­tiv­ity and feel­ing by Samuel L. Jackson, is taken largely from the notes for a book Bald­win un­der­took to write in 1979. Re­mem­ber This House was to be an ex­am­i­na­tion of Amer­ica through the lives and early deaths — all be­fore the age of forty — of three mur­dered black Amer­i­can lead­ers: Medgar Evers, Mal­colm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. In a let­ter to his agent Jay Ac­ton, Bald­win ex­presses his trep­i­da­tion about this daunt­ing pro­ject, which he de­scribes as “a jour­ney … where you never know what you will find.” He never got be­yond 30 pages of the book; but that con­tent, but­tressed with tele­vi­sion clips of Bald­win speak­ing, and with news­reels, pho­to­graphs, and sam­plings from the pop cul­ture of white Amer­ica, paint an im­age that needs to be seen and heard and ab­sorbed.

“The story of the Ne­gro in Amer­ica is the story of Amer­ica,” Bald­win says. “It is not a pretty story.”

Peck em­ploys footage from the civil rights bat­tles of the ’60s against Jackson’s read­ings of Bald­win’s words, and the images are painful. We see smirk­ing, jeer­ing white teenagers men­ac­ing a lone, stun­ningly coura­geous African-Amer­i­can girl as she clutches her books and walks to­ward a pub­lic school. We see those faces and won­der if they look back at them­selves now and are proud, or ashamed, or in­dif­fer­ent. We see news­reel footage of white faces con­torted with hate and rage, white hands bran­dish­ing signs that read “Race Mix­ing is Com­mu­nism,” and much, much worse. We see South­ern po­lice shov­ing and beat­ing peace­ful black pro­test­ers. We see white men vi­ciously at­tack­ing blacks sit­ting in at lunch coun­ters. We see Martin Luther King Jr. on a march flinch­ing at the sound of a gun­shot, but con­tin­u­ing to walk. We see pho­to­graphs of the corpses of young black men hang­ing from trees, while lynch mobs of vi­cious­look­ing white men pose be­low them.

If all this sounds up­set­ting or de­press­ing to watch, think what it was like to live it. And al­though Bald­win has been gone for three decades now, Peck makes it

Notes of a na­tive son: James Bald­win in Hyde Park, Lon­don, 1969, photo Al­lan Warren; top right, Bald­win in sun­glasses, photo © Dan Bud­nik/Mag­no­lia Pic­tures; bot­tom right, Bald­win on the Al­bert Memo­rial, Lon­don, photo Al­lan Warren

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