“The history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” These words were written by James Baldwin, the African-American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and fierce social critic. When the man of letters died in 1987, he had finished only 30 pages of what would have been his magnum opus, Remember This House, consisting of tales torn from the lives and murders of three of Baldwin’s closest friends: the civil-rights pioneers Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The book never happened, but the movie I Am Not Your Negro, directed by the Haiti-born filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck using Baldwin’s own words, is alive and kicking ass. Nominated for an Academy Award as the year’s best documentary, this chronicle of a long, hard (and ongoing) struggle will compete with two other probing docs about race in America – Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Ezra Edelman’s mammoth, seven-hour OJ: Made in America. Peck’s film stands tall even in that distinguished company. It’s unmissable and unforgettable.
In archival footage, culled from Baldwin’s university speeches and guest spots on The Dick Cavett Show, we see the man himself, breathing eloquent fire. Samuel L. Jackson narrates in the author’s voice with supreme style and fluency, reducing his booming tones to suggest Baldwin’s hushed fervor. It’s a remarkable piece of voice acting. The clips, expertly edited by Alexandra Strauss, contrast the horrific past with an ever-scarier present and illustrate how Baldwin’s words echo with equal urgency today – especially when the concept of #blacklivesmatter faces fresh peril. It’s not far from the 1960’s scenes of police brutality in the South to clips of Rodney King and the tragedy of Ferguson. Peck is also astute in using Baldwin’s words about pop culture, especially films, such as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to show how racism is wired into the most seemingly liberal pieties. The writer was persecuted on suspicions of being “homosexual” by F.B.I. hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover; he later fled to France, where he died.
But his influence, from Notes of a Native Son to The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work, is still being felt. Watching him in his patented uniform of dark suit, white shirt and skinny tie – his hooded eyes flashing as he speaks truth to pissed-off power – Baldwin remains a resonant force three decades after his death. Would he be validated or appalled, you wonder, to know that his words have lost none of their sting.