Buttressed with television clips of Baldwin speaking, and with newsreels, photographs, and samplings from the pop culture of white America, the film paints an image that needs to be seen and heard and absorbed. “The story of the Negro in America is the st
clear that what he was writing about and speaking about, and the racist America he was observing, has been ongoing and is still a part of our experience today, if in an altered form. Peck shows us a montage of young African-Americans who have been killed by police or vigilantes over recent years.
Baldwin was a formidably eloquent speaker, and one of the movie’s many powerful episodes shows him at a debate in 1965 at Cambridge University. He talks about being unaware of race as a small child, and watching cowboy movies from the perspective of a general audience. “It comes as a great shock,” he tells the assembly of Cambridge students, “when you are five or six or seven ... to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.” When Baldwin finishes and sits down, the students give him a standing ovation. Baldwin looks slightly stunned.
Baldwin had been living as an expatriate in Paris, where American-style racism was largely absent. He returned to this country after seeing newspaper photographs and accounts of the civil rights struggle, and realizing that he had to come home and be a part of it.
The three men on whose lives Baldwin planned to construct his book were all friends of his. In his proposal to his agent, he says, “I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did.” He was at Medgar Evers’ house shortly before Evers was gunned down in his carport. He first encountered Malcolm X as an intimidating presence in the audience at a lecture he was giving. He was with Martin Luther King Jr. on the march from Selma to Montgomery. He tried not to cry at King’s funeral, because he was not sure he would ever be able to stop.
“I never managed to hate white people,” he says. But he bridles at the incomprehension of well-meaning white allies like Robert Kennedy, who predicted that in 40 years there could be a Negro president. “In 40 years,” Baldwin says with scathing sarcasm, “if you’re good, we may let you become president.” Contrasting the longevity of the African in America to the latter-day arrival of the Irish, he says, “I am not a ward of America. I am one of the people who built this country.”
If Baldwin spoke with a controlled, eloquent anger, he also had a face that could break into one of the most infectious and radiant smiles you will ever see. He continued to consider himself an optimist, because “to be alive is to hope.” He saw this country as it was, and believed it could be better. But only, he insisted, if we are willing to take an honest and unflinching measure of its problems. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” he observes near the end of the movie, “but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” — Jonathan Richards