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James Baldwin Should Make You Feel Uncomfortable

Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ brilliantly channels the righteous antagonism of Baldwin’s vision of the American dream

(Magnolia Pictures/Ringer illustration)
(Magnolia Pictures/Ringer illustration)

As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.

"What I’m trying to say to this country — to us," James Baldwin once said, "is that we must know this — we must realize this: That no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible. And so dead."

The words, first spoken in New York at a Liberation Committee for Africa forum in June 1961, startle us today with the persistence of their truth. It’s one thing to merely read them — it’s another to hear them out of the mouth of an almost unrecognizably solemn Samuel L. Jackson. And it’s yet another for Jackson’s recitation to be animated by a montage of advertisements from Baldwin’s lifetime, images featuring black and white men and women wearing rich catalog smiles, monied coifs, and clothing that beams as sickly bright as artificial sunlight. This is a vision of what America wants to be. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which is up for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, pits this vision against Baldwin’s language, which is, as always, eager to glean a sense of what America truly is.

Picture white picket fences and an anonymously joyful scene of middle-class prosperity set to this ether:

No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth, and a wife, and a house with a fence, and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives—and then to marry and have the Plymouth and the house, and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy, this is what we mean.

The lines speak, righteously, for themselves. But Peck provides a stunning assist, welding them to lifestyle advertisements in order to flip those aspirational fantasies on their heads.

I Am Not Your Negro is one of four films by black filmmakers up for best documentary at the Oscars — an unprecedented number in what has proved to be a record year overall for black creators on the awards circuit. Its competition includes Ava DuVernay’s 13th; Roger Ross Williams’s Life, Animated; the Italian political documentary Fire at Sea; and the front-runner, Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour O.J.: Made in America — for the most part, equally worthwhile efforts. I suspect Peck’s film will not win. But the 90 minutes’ worth of incisively designed sequences in the documentary convince me that it should.

The film was 10 years in the making. Since 2000, Peck, who was born in Haiti, made a documentary about the failed relief efforts in his home country after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake (Fatal Assistance) and feature films about Patrice Lumumba (Lumumba) and the Rwandan genocide (Sometimes in April). In I Am Not Your Negro, he flexes his acute knack for montage, using strings of Baldwin’s text paired with archival footage, advertisements, clips from Hollywood movies, and other cultural detritus to tell a story. There are no talking heads, no linear story lines for us to grab hold of. The truth of the film, the essence of the filmmaking, is in how these contending visions complement and cut against each other. It is associative: It follows the logic of thought and image. The result is to make Baldwin’s language feel, somehow, more alive.

I’ve seen the film twice, several months apart, and each time I was taken aback by the freshness of Baldwin’s thinking. The Harlem-born Baldwin, a prolific essayist, critic, novelist, and playwright perhaps best known for The Fire Next Time (1963), one of the most important books about race in America, has not dimmed in importance since his death in 1987. If anything, he has broadened in appeal. He’s safely canonized, a regular figure on college syllabi and in educated discussions of race repopularized thanks to YouTube, where it’s easy to rewatch his incisive jeremiads on talk shows and at public lectures. (Emailing these clips back and forth to friends constituted at least half of my college education — the good half.)

He’s never left us. And yet his popularity has risked flattening some of the most important tensions in his work. The meme-friendly Baldwin quotations adorning our dating profiles and dormitory walls lack self-awareness. The urgency of his thought prevails, but the consciousness-raising sense of antagonism, the resistance to easy takeaways or preordained political credibility, is smoothed over. If you have Baldwin on your bookshelf or quoted on your Facebook page, you’re signifying that you’re already hip to his message: He attests to your hard-won knowledge, not to the fact that you need further education. (We all do.)

Ideally, we’d all remember that a true encounter with Baldwin’s work entails some fear of being put in our place. As I revel at the sight of him coming for you, I ought to be alert to the moment he comes for me: the moment his ideas begin to challenge and enrich me. The premise of Peck’s film is to restore a sense of resistance to Baldwin’s work. Peck makes great use of passages from the unfinished, unpublished Remember This House, a book Baldwin began writing in 1979. Baldwin intended for the book to wrestle with the deaths of three of his friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. "I want these lines to bang against and reveal each other," recites Jackson, channeling Baldwin.

Peck’s remarkable documentary lives up to the wild clatter of those intentions. These towering figures’ lives and deaths give the movie a structural and spiritual backbone that catapults it through history. I Am Not Your Negro is a conversation. And it is as much a testament to Baldwin’s ideas as it is a reflection on how to give them an extraordinary afterlife in images — particularly in the Hollywood images of which Baldwin was so skeptical and yet so fond.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It was the image of Dorothy Counts that brought Baldwin back.

He’d been living in Paris for just under nine years when he glimpsed a newspaper photo of the 15-year-old Counts, one of four black teenagers integrating Charlotte, North Carolina’s high schools in September 1957. It’s one of the more iconic photographs from a decade rife with them. Counts — straight-backed and proud, her dress adorned with a bow that cuts a lightning-white line through the photograph — emerges out of a large, jeering crowd of white classmates-to-be. Peck uses this and other photos from the incident to build a scene, zooming in on the white students’ faces as they laugh and make devil horns behind Counts’s back, mouths agape with ridiculous fury. What stands out in every glimpse we get of Counts is her composure. The most famous image catches the white kids vibrant with stunted motion, cartoonishly frozen on the way to lobbing their next insult. Counts, on the other hand, is as stiff as the telephone poles dotting the street behind her and just as electric — but much more vulnerable.

"It made me furious," Baldwin writes. "It filled me with both hatred and pity. And it made me ashamed." In Remember This House and elsewhere, Baldwin makes a point of declaring his non-affiliation, his lack of ties to the class-stratified NAACP, Black Panthers (whose outright hatred of whites Baldwin lamented), Christians (whom Baldwin felt weren’t adhering to the word), and young organizers — in short, the backbone of black activism. "I was never in town to stay," he says, preferring instead to travel through the civil rights era unmoored in order, as a writer, to properly bear witness. Seeing Counts, however, lit a spark in him. "I could simply no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem," he says. "Everyone else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine."

Home, for Baldwin, isn’t the "land of the free" mythos we sing about. He denies any nostalgia for hot dogs, waffles, majorettes, or Coney Island with a swift dismissal: "They might never have existed." His America is the America of black faces, black bodies, black thought, black expression. Fried chicken beats any hot dog — or French croissant, for that matter. The brunt of Remember This House studies the gap between these two Americas, particularly in the cinematic myth-making that accompanies them or, in regard to the black experience, simply ignores them.

His most substantial piece of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work (1976), is a magisterial testament to this fact. It is a book-length essay that draws not only from Baldwin’s adolescent experiences in the movie theater, his years gazing upward in the dark at white stars like Joan Crawford and black caricatures like Stepin Fetchit, but also his brief time in Hollywood as a screenwriter and his friendships with the likes of Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. (He was at one point hired to adapt The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a screenplay.) It is a tour of the cinema of his era: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Lady Sings the Blues, In the Heat of the Night, The Exorcist. Baldwin’s essay analyzes, remembers, reimagines: He shuffles through his experiences of watching and trying to understand movies like a master dealer flipping through a cinematic deck.

The Devil Finds Work goes unmentioned in I Am Not Your Negro. But the spirit of that essay is here. Peck literalizes the experience of letting Baldwin ruin — rather, illuminate — movies you think you love and understand. Baldwin is always one step ahead of us. Consider his take on the Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night, in which he likens Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier’s train-platform farewell to the kind of fade-out kiss you’d see in a grand Hollywood romance. He’s made it impossible for me to see that scene, and thus the politically harmonious racial romance it implies, any other way. Meanwhile, the next time I watch Poitier and Tony Curtis flee a chain gang in the The Defiant Ones (1958), I won’t be able to escape Baldwin’s read of the climactic scene, as depicted in I Am Not Your Negro. The perennially good-hearted Poitier, who’s handcuffed to the impolite racist played by Curtis, leaps from the getaway train and sabotages his own escape rather than leave his trailing partner behind. Baldwin, voiced by Jackson, says:

When Sidney Poitier jumps off the train, the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful. But when black people saw him jump off the train, they yelled: ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’ The black man jumps off the train to reassure white people: to let them know that they are not hated. That though they have made human errors, they have done nothing for which to be hated.

Well, shit.

Baldwin was less an aesthetic scholar of movies than a radical interpreter of the imaginary worlds movies made possible. I Am Not Your Negro attends to this impulse in Baldwin’s work beautifully, drawing it out through subtle juxtapositions and harmonies of the director’s own. Peck has a dangerous sense of humor. When Baldwin notes that white people would rather believe the violence in Birmingham, Alabama, was taking place on Mars than in their country’s own backyard, Peck hits us with a sweeping tour of Mars. When Baldwin, in a slam dunk for the ages, calls Doris Day and Gary Cooper "the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen," Peck rapidly cuts from a bright musical number to images of lynched black bodies. What we hear is Day’s voice spinning a lilting, singsongy inner monologue in Lover Come Back. What we see is historical atrocity.

This moment is less an appeal to our sense of irony than a critique of our fear of cultural tragedy. That fear is what undergirds America’s white heroic fantasies, such as those embodied by John Wayne, while, as Baldwin notes, stripping blacks and other minorities of their humanity. (Hence Baldwin’s pointed emphasis on the films of his friend Poitier, whom Baldwin believed to be a sex symbol, but whose Hollywood roles typically castrated all sense of the man’s stark sexuality.) We don’t want to believe that a camera, as much a documenter of truth as of fantasy, can preserve such frighteningly disparate phenomena: that the image of America is as much composed of Fred Astaire tap dancing as it is of black bodies strung up in trees. Baldwin makes it impossible to see America any other way.

"I was in some way, in those years, without entirely realizing it, the great black hope of the great white father."

I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that Baldwin spent a lot of time on TV. The film is filled with (and practically a tribute to) his voice, and you notice early on that everything not recited by Samuel L. Jackson is a clip from an interview, a lecture, a talk show appearance. The standout segment is a Dick Cavett appearance in which a white philosopher from Yale tries to persuade Baldwin to be pragmatic about race. As intellectuals, he suggests, he and Baldwin have more in common than, say, Baldwin and less-educated blacks. It’s a guileless new class distinction. Baldwin goes off.

Had it happened on television today, Baldwin would have gone viral. That’s what makes its inclusion here, and our inability to see it with none other than 21st-century eyes, so startling. Watching it, you realize we cannot discuss Baldwin and images without reckoning with his own afterlife in such images. He was a figure on his era’s version of the talk-show circuit, debating Malcolm X and white philosophers on a world stage that whites, blacks, and everyone else could see.

(Magnolia Pictures)
(Magnolia Pictures)

I don’t begrudge him this: I’m grateful. This footage has impacted our understanding of the man himself. I have rewatched and studied Baldwin’s gestures and minor ways of being, at least so far as speeches and interviews allow, somewhat obsessively: the slow drag of a cigarette he might take mid-thought, the way he sometimes skitters ever so quickly through his words when excited, his bug-eyed incredulity in the midst of nonsense. For me, this is the stuff reading his language invokes. It’s all a part of who he is. So, then, is the question of audience. Who consumes Baldwin’s work, and how? This is a question Peck’s film, with its secondary emphasis on Baldwin’s public persona — the ways, speaking publicly, Baldwin performed himself and his ideas — implicitly raises. That’s to say nothing of this film’s own audience and the fact of its own consumption. This is a film that knows who is most likely to see it — and why.

On a recent episode of the Vox podcast The Ezra Klein Show, the black cultural critic and political writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is often (dubiously) likened to Baldwin, spoke of the trouble of being too-liked by white people, specifically. Echoing Baldwin, he says: "I’m the guy who, I guess, white people read to show they know something." Like Baldwin, Coates has become something of a black intellectual meme. The release of his latest book, Between the World and Me — part memoir, part polemic on the realities of being black in the 21st century — solidified that. Immediately upon its release in 2015, the book inspired both enormous amounts of praise and, accordingly, some awkward skepticism. In November 2016, a Saturday Night Live skit called "The Bubble" parodied the self-consciously liberal retreat from a Trump presidency by, among other things, suggesting that white people love Ta-Nehisi Coates — just like they love Baldwin. In a used bookstore in the so-called cultural bubble of the sketch, there it is: a white woman reading Between the World and Me.

Coates says on the Vox podcast that he felt himself reduced to being a white liberal survival tool. He’s an incisive documenter of black political life who has nonetheless been flattened into a beacon of white resistance against, uh, whiteness. "What matters is white people reading the book," says Coates. "I’m not sure how to make sense out of that."

As Coates knows, and as Baldwin certainly knew, to erase blacks from the audience of work written by, for, and about their community is to erase the work itself. It diminishes a presence that Baldwin and every other black intellectual spent their careers restoring. There is no true black intellectualism without a depth of consideration for what that work means to black people. Hence the beauty and provocation of titling a Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. We know who the "I" of the title is; we can guess the implied "you." And we can suss out the stance the film, speaking for Baldwin, takes toward its potential audience. Before you watch even one frame, it has announced, confronted, and displaced this double bind head on. Baldwin saw himself for what he was. Now, through Peck, so can we.

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