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

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES -

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

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