The fire this time
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