In Raoul Peck’s new documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin stands before a Cambridge University audience and goes about dismantling white liberal sentiment as embodied by one of the decade’s liberal heroes.
Robert F. Kennedy had said in a public address that he thought it possible that the United States could have a black president in forty years. “That sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people,” says Baldwin. But what white people failed to understand was that from the point of view of the Harlem barbershop, “Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday, and now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years, and now he tells us that maybe, if you’re good, we may let you become president.”
Baldwin was a singular figure in the civil rights movement and public intellectual life. He was gay, didn't belong to any church, and felt the NAACP was classist. He was also friends with some of the biggest leaders of the movement and an acclaimed author. Statements like the one he made about Kennedy feel particularly resonant today because they so deftly re-contextualize a mainstream view of progress and racial inequality.
Baldwin was able to reshape the conversation. Recently, there's been a shift in the national consciousness about racism, as activists have moved on from questions about the personal to examinations of privilege. One is no longer fighting racism, which can be attributed to individuals, but white supremacy, which is institutional. This feels like a Baldwin-esque shift in the culture.
In 1979, Baldwin wrote to his agent describing the book he wanted to write next, a personal essay about the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., to be called Remember This House. The book never happened. Working from that letter, as well as Baldwin’s published and unpublished work, Peck sketches a biography of Baldwin knitted together with a loose film version of what Remember This House might have been.
The film is packed with Baldwin’s acute observations about the black experience, but even more penetrating are his unforgiving insights about white perceptions of that experience—and what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that gaze. Baldwin can defend Malcolm X against Martin Luther King Jr. without making it a matter of defending him at all. He can eviscerate the argument of a well-meaning philosophy professor who thinks Baldwin is too hung up on race and he can make white people question what kind of society they’ve made.
Baldwin’s insights are delivered either by the man himself, via archival footage, or by Samuel L. Jackson, in voiceover narration. At times Peck's style of collage—and of pairing Baldwin's words with images Peck shot for the movie—is dull, obvious, or, as far as I could make out, arbitrary. And Jackson's sober, sleepy voiceover is a mismatch with Baldwin's electric, clipped way of speaking. But in fairness to Peck and Jackson, there may be no public intellectual in history more fascinating to watch than Baldwin. He often pauses mid-sentence, deep in thought, letting his teary eyes wander to the ceiling and then back down to the floor, holding silences long enough to send a live television producer into a cold sweat.
But it’s impossible to look away. These long pauses are useful; they give you time to grab a paper and pencil, because whatever Baldwin says once he starts talking again is sure to be worth writing down. In addition to using archival interviews and public debates, Peck films New York cityscapes and car-window meditations, documentary footage of the Ferguson uprising, prison populations, and Black Lives Matter protests. He applies Baldwin's decades-old commentary to our current cultural and political landscape, showing us, as Baldwin says in the film, that "History is not the past; it is the present." Baldwin's insights are more potent weapons than ever in the battle being fought today.