In ‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ fire of Baldwin’s words burns anew
NEW YORK (AP) — One of the surest ways to see the power and relevance of James Baldwin’s words today would be to look at some of the signs of recent protesters. “If I love you I must make you conscious of things you do not see,” read one. “The only way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain,” read another.
Or you could see Raoul Peck’s urgent and clarion documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” It resurrects Baldwin’s words — his eloquent poetry of injustice — with the same fire with which they were blazed. Peck’s film, which is nominated for best documentary at the Academy Awards, bears no talking heads. There’s no analysis of Baldwin’s influence in literature or interpretation of his politics. But there is his voice: clear, direct and piercingly prescient.
“I wanted the confrontation to be direct from his words, himself to the audience,” Peck, who shares his screenwriting credit with Baldwin, said in a recent interview. “I was the messenger.”
It took Peck, the Haitian-born filmmaker of “Lumumba” and “Sometimes in April,” years to find the right avenue into Baldwin for “I Am Not Your Negro,” which opens in theaters Friday. A great responsibility hung over the decade-long endeavor, Peck says, to bring Baldwin to the forefront.
“I read Baldwin as a teenager and his writing never left me,” said Peck. “His writing structured the man I am today and the filmmaker I am today. I wanted to make sure the next generation had access to Baldwin.”
Peck was welcomed by Baldwin’s estate, which is managed by Baldwin’s younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart. But the key to the film only emerged when Karefa-Smart gave Peck the pages of “Remember This House,” which Baldwin completed 30 pages of before his death in 1987 at age 63. The unfinished book was intended to stitch together reflections on three assassinated civil rights leaders: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
“Remember This House” is used as the prism through which to view the novelist, essayist and activist. Passages from the manuscript and other works by Baldwin are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. And there is copious footage of Baldwin speaking and of his arresting appearances on shows like “The Dick Cavett Show.”
But “I Am Not Your Negro” isn’t a time capsule. It’s about today. Peck juxtaposes Baldwin’s words with images of police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement and other recent events. Other images flicker at times — John Wayne and Doris Day — that question the white picture of America promoted by Hollywood.
As he toiled, Peck found his film increasingly timely, a relevance that has only increased since the election. When the Ferguson protests grew, he sent a crew to document it.
“I knew how fundamental Baldwin’s words were and I knew they were important to understand the confusion we were in,” said Peck. “What I did not expect is that it would become so obvious and I would have so many examples and illustrations of what I was working on.”
Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s niece, says Peck’s film, which includes excerpts from the FBI’s extensive file on Baldwin, was revelatory. “It made me understand my family more in terms of the hushed tones that people spoke in and the unspoken fears that permeated the household.”
At festival screenings, she has watched the film help resurrect her uncle. “A lot of kids are upset they didn’t know who he was,” says Karefa-Smart. “He was kind of the background for a while.”
That has changed in recent years. Baldwin is widely taught in universities. The Library of America has published his essays, novels and stories with introductions from Toni Morrison. The James Baldwin Review was begun in 2015. When Chris Rock spoke at a Harlem church on Martin Luther King Day last year, shortly after a second-straight year of all-white acting nominees to the Oscars, he read “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin’s letter to his nephew.
And perhaps most influential has been author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom Morrison famously called the spiritual heir to Baldwin. His best-selling “Between the World and Me” was modeled on Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” from “The Fire Next Time.”
What many respond to in Baldwin is his searing directness, his willingness to confront the deep-seated ills of America and to reposition questions of race. “The country’s image of the Negro, which hasn’t very much to do with the Negro, has never failed to reflect with a kind of frightening accuracy the state of mind of the country,” he wrote in “Nobody Knows My Name.”
Peck believes his film is ultimately an intimate one intended to provoke the kind of personal inquiry demanded by Baldwin, who warned against “purposeful blindness.”
“You cannot, whether you are white or black or Latino or whoever, you cannot come out of this film an innocent person,” says Peck. “You know. You know all you need to know in order to face it, to react, to do something or not. As far as Baldwin is concerned, you have no excuse anymore. The elements, as he would say, are all on the table.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP