An analysis of Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro”

An analysis of Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro”

Alex Rodallec analyses Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a film about the life and work of James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro will be screened by CinemAfrica film festival at BIO RIO in Stockholm this Saturday, February 25th at 10.30 AM.

And if a house is divided against itself it cannot stand.

– Mark 3:25

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

– Abraham Lincoln

A house may mean a great many things: a nation, a family of nobles, a place where people live together, sharing a common history, a relation. Which of them should we remember, I ask myself, thinking about the title of James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember this house… I ponder this title of Baldwin’s for the unfinished work upon which director Raoul Peck chose to base his film, I Am Not Your Negro. Remember this house… “That great western house I come from is one house, and I am one of the children of that house…” Baldwin’s work is firmly anchored in the tradition of The United States, echoing Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, back through the biblical tradition of the Pilgrims, that the ateist Baldwin had himself criticized, though he saw the power of faith, just like his friend, Martin Luther King Jr, of whom he writes in the unfinished manuscript. Dr. King had also anchored himself in a great American myth, that of the American Dream. Or rather they both recognized what was inescapably so, that they carried the history of their house, together with all the children of that house.

For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. (from Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes)

The critically acclaimed film, narrated by a voice unrecognizable as Samuel L. Jackson, interweaves clips of Baldwin, of the past and present day violence and protests, and of the three men who were his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., all three murdered before the age of forty. Baldwin writes of seeing the views of the latter two coalesce toward the end of both men’s lives. And he tells of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s exhortation to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to persuade his brother John to personally escort a small black girl scheduled to enter a Deep South school, so that “it would be clear that whoever [spat] on that child would be spitting on the nation”. It is a story of Black American intellectuals and activists. It is a story of the beautiful James Baldwin’s analysis of the past, present and future of his country, and what is most fascinating of it is Baldwin himself, and his analysis of the psychological workings of his country, mirrored in the work of the greatest postcolonial thinkers. My question must be whether this film does the luminary justice.

James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London. Photo by Allan Warren/CC.
James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London. Photo by Allan Warren/CC.

I think of the prescience of his words, echoed in the film. That the issue is not firstly race, but rather that it is the moral and emotional bankruptcy of white Americans. That it is not even hate which is the bigger problem, but rather the failure to think, to care, to empathize, to feel, and to act on that feeling, to assume responsibility for one’s actions. Baldwin tells in his article Letter From a Region in My Mind of when him and two of his Black friends, all visbly older than thirty, were refused buying a drink at an airport bar. No one interceded on their behalf, until the manager came in an corrected the bartender while simultaneously defending him. When the whole thing was over, and they were trembling with rage and frustration, a young white man, standing next to them asked them if they were students, which Baldwin interpreted as it being the only way this young man could understand them putting up a fight. Baldwin then told him that he hadn’t wanted to talk to them earlier, and that they did not want to talk to him now.

The reply visibly hurt his feelings, and this, in turn, caused me to despise him. But when one of us, a Korean War veteran, told this young man that the fight we had been having in the bar had been his fight, too, the young man said, “I lost my conscience a long time ago,” and turned and walked out. I know that one would rather not think so, but this young man is typical. So, on the basis of the evidence, had everyone else in the bar lost his conscience. A few years ago, I would have hated these people with all my heart. Now I pitied them, pitied them in order not to despise them. And this is not the happiest way to feel toward one’s countrymen. (Letter From a Region in My Mind)

The analysis is typical of Baldwin, who continuously examines what he sees as the two victims of racism, the racializer and the racialized, an analysis echoed in the great thinkers. I read Baldwin and feel hopeful, but I cannot help but despair as well. That we have known for so long and yet here we are. Such are also the images, and the emotional impact of I Am Not Your Negro. And it is undoubtedly so, for any minority, that freedom and equality in a country shared with a dominant other will not come without that other. But in Baldwin there are steps of focus. First one must liberate one’s own mind from the division. But this does not mean to relinquish righteous precaution, or opposition. Here I come to his friend, Malcolm X.

I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think, it was, who said, ‘To be or not to be.’ He was in doubt about something—whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—moderation—or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. And I go for that. If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth. (Malcolm X at a debate at Oxford University in 1964, a year before he was murdered)

James Baldwin in front of a statue of William Shakespeare.
James Baldwin in front of a statue of William Shakespeare. Photo by Allan Warren/CC.

The idea of extremism today, post 9/11, in America, in Europe, in the world, addressed by Muslims of all colors, was also addressed on numerous occasion by the brilliant James Baldwin, put in the exact same terms as many put it now. This is highlighted by a clip in Raoul Peck’s film, where Baldwin compares the reaction to a Black man screaming “Give me liberty!”, to that of a White man doing the same. Though Baldwin feels the need and power of the group (for instance the Nation of Islam), he also sees a tension between the group and the individual, one which releases an individual from personal responsibility. And Baldwin’s concern is for the personal, for the need to awaken the mind of everyone into the realization of the danger of the passivity of the mind toward the other. This is something that turns us into monsters. Instead he searches for the “transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars”, stating clearly that “whoever debases others is debasing himself”. With this he also means that black Americans hold the key to saving White Americans humanity from themselves. He is also clear about this never having taken place through any laws being implemented to give any so called “equal rights” to black Americans, but that such acts have come from historical necessities, such as the Cold War. And therefore all things remain.

“She kills her bright future

and rapes for a sou

Then entraps her children

with legends untrue”

I beg you

Discover this country.

(Excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem America.)

James Baldwin with close friend, Maya Angelou.
James Baldwin with close friend, Maya Angelou. Photo Angelou-Johnson family archives.

See it for what it is, accept it’s history, unveil it: Remember this house. Remember what you can do to bring about the dream. Baldwin’s work is a call to action to save a possibility he saw in the particular’s of America, with it’s blend of people. One which he perhaps failed to see was not unique, describing  it as uniquely American, for this has been the reality not only of many a country where Western colonialism was present, it now includes the colonizing countries themselves. Baldwin’s work is as such perhaps of great import to far more nations than he ever thought. Mining the psychology of white Americans he identifies the psychological despair coming from a culture alienated from itself, a culture stating ideals which it has never attempted to uphold, as he puts it. His is a social critique, one directed at both capitalism and religious ideals having permeated a culture transforming it into a house divided from the psyche of every citizen up to the halls of congress. Stating clearly that “the price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks”. Stating clearly that it is through the eyes of black or native Americans that one can see what America really is, beyond mythology. But the bleak outlook of race-relations is even then something that James Baldwin pierces into a vision hope. He is not a doomsday prophet, rather he is a prophet of Love. And through the despair of reality which is the film of Raoul Peck also shines this enormous heart that is James Baldwin, a beautiful revolutionary thinker.

White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan bank.

– James Baldwin

I have to judge the film on how I feel it does justice to this beautiful human being. And I do see Baldwin’s extraordinary character and intellect. This is in no way lost. What I do lack is certainly due to the constraint of time inherent in film, and not of any quality of the artist-director, Raoul Peck. This I say because I image the intent to be both a portrait of James Baldwin as well as analysis of how history repeats itself since we carry it within, in this film seen in a primarily American context, though also valid beyond. The only thing I am left wanting, is more of Baldwin, the person. I imagine much of my relation to him being due to a closer reading of several of his texts, something that cannot be expected of everyone who goes to see the film. The film could have done with another fifteen minutes or half hour painting a clearer portrait of Baldwin, if only to bring us closer to him. An inspiring film and a must see nonetheless.

…as long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish (as we once put it in our black church) in their sins—that is, in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us. (An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angel Davis)

WRITER James Baldwin
STARRING James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, Dick Cavett
GENRE Documentary