In one of the opening scenes of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, we are shown a clip of James Baldwin as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett is asking Baldwin about whether he is hopeful or despairing for the future. Baldwin breaks into that dazzling gap-toothed smile of his and takes a breath before beginning. It is a particular skill of Baldwin’s that remains uniquely his own: to rain down thunderous truth with such measured grace. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes of living in a white world, “One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene.” Neither option is particularly enticing: either one lives as a cripple or suffers the “equally unbearable…risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison.” To throw a glass of water at the owner of a diner who refused to serve him — something Baldwin writes about in his book — is amputation. To smile through the ignorant questions of white folks, that’s surely gangrene. To tell the truth, Baldwin concedes to Cavett, he doesn’t have much hope. Does that make Baldwin a pessimist or a fortune-teller?
That question of hope versus despair lingers throughout the film, all the way up until the closing credits. It seems to be a question that Peck is obsessed by, one that has become reincarnated and reemphasized in our current political racial climate of police brutality and mass incarceration. That is to say, Baldwin is eulogized throughout the film by his refusal to believe that things will get better, which in turn has become a prophecy. Did he have hope? No. Why should he?
I Am Not Your Negro is framed around Baldwin’s final and uncompleted manuscript Remember This House, in which he planned to tell the stories of three critical figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers (all of whom who were assassinated, all personal friends of Baldwin’s). The film opens with a letter to Baldwin’s literary agent describing the project, read in the smoky, baritone voice of Samuel L. Jackson. We are flooded with old images of Harlem. Baldwin, who had been living abroad for many years, describes his longing to return to the streets of New York.
Voiceover, archival photographs, such is the stuff of a prototypical documentary…But this is where the similarities end. Firstly, there are no talking heads in this film: no Baldwin scholars seated comfortably at their desks, no family members to regale us with their stories and memories of him. And while Jackson narrates for us, there is no “script” to speak of — we are led throughout the film by Baldwin’s words alone. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Peck said “my job was to put myself in the background and just be the messenger of those words.” Such transparency is rare to see and it packs a powerful punch.
While Baldwin may have died in 1987, the film continues up through the present, with the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Peck cuts between found footage from the Civil Rights Movement and cellphone videos from Ferguson and Baltimore. If you have to come to see The Life and Times of James Baldwin, you are watching the wrong film. This is because, in part, the documentary isn’t really about Baldwin at all. Or rather, it is, insofar as Peck sees him as a portal to the future, a kind of sacred conduit between the past and the present. Sure, we receive glimpses into James’ life but really the film is about something larger: the relevancy that his words still have. If there could be a thesis for the film it might be something along the lines of that age-old adage, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Peck doesn’t have to say anything; Baldwin has said it all.
One laments, selfishly, in more ways than one, the premature passing of Baldwin. If only he had been alive to see what we have done. The legalization of gay marriage (Baldwin was openly homosexual), the election of a black president. But to be alive now is a glistening, double-edged sword; to see the triumph would also mean seeing all that is ugly, all that has not changed. Perhaps this is what Cavett was getting at when he asked Baldwin that question nearly 50 years ago. How do we reconcile the good with the bad? What cancels what out? At one point in the film, we are shown a stream of faces of the black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands of policemen. It is enough to take your breath away and indeed it took away mine. It is difficult to watch the footage of Martin Luther King’s children peering into his casket at the funeral. It is difficult to watch the footage of a lynched man hanging, of a police baton swing, of an unarmed black man on his knees. Difficult but vital. These are the things that Baldwin had seen in his lifetime. This was Baldwin’s America. These must have been the images he thought of when a white man asked if he still had any hope.