Monday, March 27, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

James Baldwin gets the writer's credit in this stirring must-see documentary about Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck. The credit is probably fair enough, even though Baldwin died in 1987—the picture is based on letters Baldwin wrote to his literary agent about a book he never finished called Remember This House. The book was to be about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom Baldwin knew personally. This film uses what exists of that unfinished manuscript and those four figures—Evers, X, and King, as well as Baldwin—as a springboard into a meditation on the state of African American progress in the United States, during Baldwin's time and after. As Baldwin himself says, with an image of him standing in what appears to be the ruins of the South Bronx in the late '70s, it's not a pretty picture. Actually, that's Samuel L. Jackson doing the voiceover, and actually, it's a remarkable job of staying out of the way of Baldwin's words. He is completely believable as Baldwin himself, in all his tangling beautiful eloquence and contradictions. The state of race relations is not a pretty picture, we are reminded as the greatest hits of the past century go swimming by onscreen: lynchings, Jim Crow signs, Montgomery, Birmingham, Watts, Rodney King, Ferguson, and many recent victims, such as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. It's not a pretty picture and Baldwin is not at all sanguine about any immediate improvements, and this movie is here to tell us so urgently. Thirty years after his death, Baldwin looks chillingly prescient. This is a stark and compelling consideration of how far we have not come in 400 years of history in this hemisphere. It's not possible to overstate the blunt force of its images and their stories, as framed by Baldwin. Obviously, it's also a great tonic, a point of relief, from the Trump regime miasma settling in—we got through the '60s, didn't we? (didn't we?)—and because it makes the connections with clarity to so much we are seeing today, when we're willing to look. A stiff dose of reality. Trump's America is an old America, one that Baldwin knew well, perhaps better than us. Baldwin is a complicated figure, never fully at ease in his relations with, or his disaffection from, the US. But it's the kind of unease we seem to be living with on a daily basis now. He's got some helpful pointers for survival here.

1 comment:

  1. I'll never forget Trump's response over the summer when pressed ab Black Lives Matter. Let's bring back "stop-and-frisk," he flippantly shot back. Wonder what Ben Carson would make of the title of this doc? Nice one.