In the late 1970s, the writer James Baldwin set forth to work on “Remember This House,” his personal account of the lives and connections of three of his close friends, the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin never finished the book, but the manuscript served as the basis for Raoul Peck’s incisive documentary I Am Not Your Negro. By arming the writer’s prescient words with powerful imagery, Peck attempts to finish Baldwin’s book through a filmic analysis of the complex history of race in America.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro presents various ideas about the country’s systemic racial oppression. A key point is the influence of Hollywood movies on American culture. Baldwin wrote: “Heroes, as far as I could see, were white — and not merely because of the movies, but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.” To Baldwin, Hollywood movies were both proof and ceaseless enabler of America’s deeply rooted racial problems. Though many of the films presented date back to the midcentury, they’re a judicious reminder of the ongoing need for diverse voices and representations in film. For Baldwin and many others, representation doesn’t just matter — it’s a matter of life and death.
While white men like Gary Cooper and John Wayne were portrayed as heroes at the expense of people of color, Baldwin wrote that movies also perpetuated negative stereotypes of black people. He had an aversion for Stepin Fetchit, the comic actor billed as “the Laziest Man in the World” for his lethargic, dim-witted characters. In a scene from Open the Door Richard (1945), Fetchit plays a pajama-clad black man struggling to get out of bed to the tune of “Lazy Richard (Can’t Get Him Up).”
Baldwin also wrote of Sidney Poitier who often portrayed characters almost devoid of sexuality and who were subservient to white men. Peck illustrates this with scenes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Poitier’s extreme politeness and gentlemanly demeanor is a means of sanitizing his blackness for white audiences. He’s a black man approved by white America. Another clip is from The Defiant Ones, where Poitier plays Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis plays John “Joker” Jackson, two escaped convicts on the run. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised the film as “a remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea — the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood.” Baldwin, on the other hand, saw a different film.
In a pivotal scene, Cullen and Jackson run away from their captors to catch a train. Cullen makes it on but Jackson does not, and Cullen decides to jump off the train to be with him. Baldwin claimed white audiences applauded this choice — it reassured them they’re not hated. They’re not the bad guys. Black audiences, according to Baldwin, thought that Cullen should have stayed on the train. The black man should have set himself free.
At the time of Baldwin’s writing, Poitier was an anomaly. But he underscores Baldwin’s notion that there are two American experiences: black and white, oppressed and privileged, negro and master. Movies only highlight the real-life experiences as well as distorted portrayals of black America, as illustrated by Peck through films and advertisements featuring black mammies and Uncle Toms. There is a black-and-white clip of black children dressed in bunny costumes, hopping around a grassy field with big, fat smiles across their faces. These are not real black children — they’re caricatures played up for cameras directed at white audiences.
This is especially haunting when juxtaposed against a series of photographs of Trayvon Martin and other young black men killed by white police officers in recent years. “We are living in a police state,” reads a sign in a dated civil rights march photo. These images illustrate the evolution of black slavery to mass incarceration as explained in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Peck’s film may be releasing in 2016, but the issues it brings up have existed for centuries.
With previous dramatic credits including Lumumba and Sometimes in April, the Haitian-born Peck is no stranger to depicting political events. He has also stated that Baldwin’s writings are an important influence on his life, and the labor of love shows in his decade-long work on the Oscar-nominated documentary. The power of I Am Not Your Negro comes from Peck’s ability to weave crucial historical moments with Baldwin’s personal reflections. The film’s editor Alexandra Strauss utilizes various forms of visual media to present each case, including movie scenes, archival footage, newsreels and photography. In a scene with Baldwin on a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, the host asks, “Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic? It’s getting so much better.” A cut to Baldwin’s expressionless face speaks volumes.
I Am Not Your Negro is urgent viewing for today’s racially divided times. It presents the deep history of two very different experiences in white and black America that continue to exist today, and that also influence the lives of non-black people of color. As Baldwin said in a filmed speech, “The future of the negro in this country is as bright or as dark as the future of the country.” The white invention of the “negro” must be faced for any real substantial change to occur. A viewing and understanding of this film is a hopeful first step.