It’s often difficult to know how writers and authors will be received in the generations after their passing, but James Baldwin found himself an influential icon of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Baldwin through his involvement in the upheavals taking place in the Civil Rights Era during the 1960s (a term he disliked and instead, favoured “the latest slave rebellion”) articulated the problem of race in the United States drawing back to its foundation. The biopic I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, presents snippets of his time as an understated social and cultural critic of 1960s and primarily focuses on the reflections of this era that he put to paper – and the friendships of three of its most iconic spokesmen – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; his writings drawn largely from the unfinished manuscript – Remember This House, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Many of the clips of Baldwin’s public engagements, are interspersed with clips of the 2014 Ferguson protests – contrasting much of post-Civil Rights, especially Obama-era works presenting the period, which only seek to present how far the United States had come. This film, consistent with Baldwin’s uncompromising strive towards intellectual and moral honesty, presents how far the US had to go.
Baldwin’s recollections of the films in his childhood, and some of the films that were contemporary for the 1960’s leads him to conclude that White America constructed a narrative for itself that excused, or dismissed the brutality that served as the foundation of the nation, and justifies existing race relations. Baldwin expressed exasperation of the Sidney Poitier films (though not the man himself) which either presented him as an overly-idealised representative of blackness, or a somewhat conciliatory figure to assuage white audiences. In contrast, black people – were either presented as lazy, overly excitable or eager to entertain, or for black women – barely articulate “Mammy” figures.
He recalls that he had no commitment, or even trust – of the NAACP – who he perceived in his youth as black elitists and not too dissimilar from the black church in which he had long departed. Even so, he was not against them – and his misgivings of the organisation did not prevent him from striking a friendship with Medgar Evers. Likewise, despite his distrust of the Nation of Islam – he was captivated all the same with the aura of Malcolm X – who he first encountered on the front row of one of his lectures. The Southern Christian Leadership Committee of Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to be the only group he didn’t already have negative preconceptions of, if only because by that point – he had already resolved himself to be a “witness” of the African-American struggle.
A clip of the interviews of himself, along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) presented Baldwin as an intermediary figure between the stances of MLK and X – Baldwin even sympathising with both based on their backgrounds. Unfortunately, the film neglected to bring context to Baldwin’s remarks on Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy – then the Attorney General and White America as a whole: Baldwin, as well as Clark, along with Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Clarence Jones – MLK’s lawyer, and a young activist named Jerome Smith had an “off the books” 3-hour meeting with Kennedy at his apartment which proved highly disappointing for the group. Indeed, Hansberry was the first who departed when a clear impasse was apparent. Peck presents Baldwin’s recollections of the meeting with Kennedy more explicitly only in the context of the friendship he had with Hansberry, and underplays that experience in the context of the interview with Clark – which is a shame since that interview took place mere hours after they both met with Kennedy, and was the basis for the latter to order Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover so start a file on Baldwin.
Another missed opportunity were explorations into Baldwin’s sexuality. While it is true that Baldwin refused to engage in the gay rights struggle, however – the only mention of his sexuality is in a text of a sample of the first FBI page on Baldwin. His sexuality created complications with his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and later, the Black Power movement – Black church leaders would deride him, and he was nearly unable to attend the March on Washington because he was openly gay. Eldridge Cleaver launched a homophobic attack on Baldwin in his book Soul on Ice, suggesting that Baldwin’s sexuality was because of his internal self-hatred of his black identity – leading to a complicated relationship with the Black Panthers in general (he did manage to strike friendships with a number of them, such as Angela Davis, and Huey Newton – who rebuked Cleaver). Not presented either – is his early history with the socialist movement as part of the Young Socialist League and internationalist stances on the Algerian War, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Palestine.
Nevertheless, the film is an excellent biopic which reintroduces the long-relevance of James Baldwin back to viewers, and helps understand his continuing significance to this current generation of activists.