In the late 1970s, James Baldwin began working on an idea for a book that would tell the story of America through the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal one another as they did in life,” Baldwin wrote, and this is the point of departure for Raoul Peck’s magnificent new film, I Am Not Your Negro, which was nominated for an Oscar Tuesday in the best documentary feature category.
If you think the height of documentary filmmaking comes from the brain of Ken Burns, Peck’s taut exploration of the life of one of America’s literary geniuses will come as a welcome revelation. Yes, there is archival footage mixed in with contemporary imagery, but there are no talking heads. There are no historians or professors emeritus explaining what we have or are about to see on-screen. For the most part, we simply have Baldwin himself, alternating mostly between frustration and indignation and occasionally bemusement, as he explains to mostly white television audiences just why the Negro is so angry or why the American dream is just that.
For Peck, who first encountered Baldwin’s writings as a teenager, it took nearly 10 years to bring the author’s words to the screen.
“[With] a film like this, you don’t just have an idea and sit down and write the film,” Peck tells The Root in an interview in New York City. “A film like this is a process, a process in which every failure, every accident, every obstacle becomes an excuse to create and fuels the next step.”
While he thought about the possibility of making a narrative film, he settled on a documentary, in part, because he could fund the film himself and maintain creative control of the finished product.
The documentary keeps its focus squarely on the author’s writing, which comes to life through the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. It is this narration—over grainy, black-and-white footage of the civil rights movement or recent marches and demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere—that dominates the film.
As brilliant a conversationalist as Baldwin was—and he would smoke a modern-day pundit—he was first and foremost one of his generation’s most gifted writers and theorists. Hearing his words come to life, delivered by an actor of Jackson’s caliber, gives the film an urgency another director would have missed.
Through these words, Baldwin narrates the story of his own life: the poor, but avid, learner in Harlem who is befriended by a white teacher; the slightly older boy who, though he had grown up on the America of John Wayne, slowly realizes that America was never meant for him; the writer who leaves America behind in the 1950s for Paris; and the mature man who decides, though he has never been homesick for America, that he has missed his people.
“I could no longer sit around Paris and discuss the Algerian and Negro problems,” we hear. Upon his return, Baldwin crystallizes the feeling that so many Americans, especially Americans of color, have felt: “Now, though, I was a stranger, I was home.”
The beauty and sadness of Baldwin’s writing is that he could be speaking about today. Most of the film focuses on those scant few years when the three titans of the movement were killed. As Baldwin describes these turbulent times, Peck occasionally, and masterfully, intercuts between then and now.
As we hear Baldwin’s words voiced by Jackson, it is hard not to weep as we are reminded just how little progress we as a society have made. While young black men are, for the most part, no longer lynched, they are gunned down in the streets, by law enforcement and one another. Protesters are still beaten and gassed. Racism still pervades our society, and liberals and conservatives alike still minimize its impact.
Perhaps prophetically anticipating current politics, the words “immaturity is taken to be a virtue” echo long after they are spoken. Not long after and before we can fully process the meaning of those words, Baldwin, speaking way back then, lays out his vision of black life in America, which sounds familiar to many living today: “They don’t need us for the cotton, and now that they don’t need us anymore, they’re going to kill all of us.”
As each one of the civil rights martyrs is laid out in his casket, the weariness of Baldwin’s face increases when we see him on-screen, and his words take on increasing weight.
“For a long time, America has prospered and this prosperity has cost many lives,” he tells us, going on to add that “the story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
According to the filmmaker, for liberals who think people of color “have enough or ‘we made it,’” Baldwin’s words will be tough to hear.
Baldwin’s words may be too tough to hear. But for Peck, it was clear what kind of film he had to create in order to honor the man at its center.
“It had to be without any censorship. I can’t do less than Baldwin himself had done,” Peck says. “This man said everything he had to say; he said it looking at you in the eyes ... so how can you, 40 or 50 years later, do a smooth thing that everybody will accept?”
At the start of the film, we learn that the author never completed this book, stopping after only a few dozen pages of notes. We never learn why, but we can imagine the difficulty he must have faced when trying to write about men he not only admired but had also known and loved. Older than all of them, Baldwin never expected to outlive them, and it must have seemed, in those dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when conservatism was ascendant, that he had outlived their dreams as well.
Toward the end of the film, Baldwin tells us, “You cannot lynch and keep me in the ghetto without becoming something monstrous.” That is the America too many of our fellow citizens refuse to see when looking in the mirror, and a few of us are haunted by every day.
I Am Not Your Negro opens nationwide Feb. 3.