Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is the rare movie that might be called a spiritual documentary. It’s a meditation on the prophetic brilliance and the very being of James Baldwin, the African-American writer who was more than a “great thinker” on race — he was the prose-poet of our injustice and inhumanity (and our humanity, too). He saw more than anyone, and he wrote it all down, in essays and novels and plays and poems that were so far ahead of where his society was at that it may only be now, 40 or 50 years later, when he can truly be heard. The times have caught up with his scalding eloquence.
In the early moments of “I Am Not Your Negro,” there’s an amazing clip of Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show.” We think of Cavett as the puckish, enlightened voice of liberal reason, but this clip is from 1968 (the first year he was on), when he was a little more stodgy and reserved, and it’s a shock to hear him ask Baldwin a pointed question as to whether he’s feeling hopeful about “the Negro.” The subtext of the question is a rather imperious, “You should be feeling hopeful.” But the real shock is the way that Cavett throws the word “Negro” around. No, it wasn’t the N-word — but it was the other N-word, not quite as ugly but nearly as dehumanizing. (It was the N-word for polite liberals.) A year or two year later, when “black” came into vogue, it had a liberating effect: You were black or you were white, but a new equivalence was built into that language. Yet to be “a Negro” was to be…a thing. An object. It was a despicable word. And for a few moments, it makes Cavett — channeling the racism of his time — sound like someone who was overseeing a plantation.
What is Baldwin’s response? He says that no, he isn’t feeling overly optimistic about the future of the race question. His word for that situation is that it might be “hopeless.” That’s not something you’re allowed to say on a talk show — not in the late ’60s, and not now, either. The remark hangs in the air like a cloud of toxic fume. Baldwin’s eyes glower with a raging sadness that’s too profound to speak its name. At the risk of sounding like, I don’t know…Dick Cavett, I’ll confess that I watched that moment and thought. “Man, that is awfully pessimistic.” I questioned what Baldwin was saying, and I think a lot of other people will too. Yet by the time “I Am Not Your Negro” is over, you understand exactly what he’s saying, and it’s not nearly as dismissive as it sounds. He is not hopeless about “the Negro.” He is, potentially, hopeless about all of us. But only because the hope buried in his heart burns so brightly.
James Baldwin is a towering figure who deserves a great biographical documentary. “I Am Not Your Negro” doesn’t pretend to be that film. Watching it, you discover a great deal about Baldwin, but you won’t learn when he was born (in 1924) or when he died (in 1987). You won’t learn about the contours of his literary career or how, exactly, he blossomed into someone who was ubiquitous on television. (You might, however, shed a tear for the lost age when literary figures got asked to be on talk shows.) You’ll see a bit about his fame and the celebrated figures he was close to, but you’ll learn only sketchy things about his self-imposed exile to Europe. Blink and you’ll miss the film’s one and only reference to his sexuality — an FBI report, instigated (of course) by the paranoid closeted racist J. Edgar Hoover, that warns that Baldwin is “dangerous” and says that he’s suspected of being a homosexual.
Yet if you watch “I Am Not Your Negro,” you’ll spend a kaleidoscopic and transporting 90 minutes living inside James Baldwin’s mind, coming thrillingly close to his existential perception of the hidden meaning of race in America. Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born filmmaker who made the superb perils-of-colonialism drama “Lumumba” (2000), has directed “I Am Not Your Negro” as a hypnotic collage — of public appearances and TV shows (the “Dick Cavett” drama lightens up a bit and turns into a kind of running serial), rare glimpses of the Civil Rights era and its tumultuous aftermath, and clips of the Hollywood movies that helped to shape Baldwin’s imagination. It’s all held together by the incantatory flow of Baldwin’s words, culled from many different manuscripts, including the magnum opus about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — all friends of his who were gunned down — that Baldwin had just begun to work on and had finished 30 pages of when he died. The words are all read by Samuel L. Jackson, and his reading is uncanny, because though he doesn’t sound precisely like Baldwin, his deep-voiced, melodious directness — the deliberate way that he seizes the meaning of each word — coaxes out the totemic force of Baldwin’s thoughts.
The words are fiercely proud and drenched in shame, utterly fearless and woefully insecure, with a voice that hovers between despair and disdain yet is somehow incandescent — lit by the flame of Baldwin’s honesty. He explains how he had a teacher at school, a woman named “Bill” Miller, who meant so much to him that from that moment he could never hate white people. He talks about recoiling from Stepin Fetchit and other cowering black comedians he saw in the movies, because they acted like no one he had ever met. He talks about seeing John Wayne spend most of his time on screen attacking Indians (i.e., people of color), and taking the following lesson from those films: “My countrymen were my enemy.” He talks about the final scene of “In the Heat of the Night” — the goodbye at the train station between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger — as a spiritual kiss; watching the clip, with Baldwin’s explication, you see how one movie, one image, could change the world by expressing the inexpressible. And he talks about sitting at the pool in Hollywood, trying to adapt “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” with Billy Dee Williams at his side (the actor he wanted for Malcolm), when he heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. We never hear about what happened to the Malcolm film, and maybe that’s the explanation; it just faded.
Baldwin kept so much of himself hidden, yet there’s something in his presence that doesn’t — that can’t — lie. He has the saturnine sincerity of someone who wasn’t carefree enough to joke around. His large, hooded, staring eyes were like telescopic weapons, and though he was born and raised in Harlem, he spoke in cultivated aristocratic tones, with the hint of a Continental accent that said: I am not of this place. He sounded — and looked — strikingly like his friend Nina Simone, and they shared something rare even among the most prominent black artists of their day: an absolute rejection of the racist terms of America. I don’t mean the racism itself (many rejected that). I mean that Baldwin, like Simone, would not allow himself to be defined — ever — on the white man’s terms. That defiance made both of them want to go live in Europe, which they found a more welcoming place, and we see clips of Baldwin speaking with lashing insight at a debate hosted by the University of Cambridge in 1965, where his thoughts, ironically, were far more welcome than they were at home.
At the center of his perception was his rejection of the “liberal” vision. That vision was all about the issue of how blacks in America would be treated: Would they get more rights? More equality? More freedom? Baldwin was in favor of all those things, yet for him the very notion that the black man (or woman) was going to be given rights, or even that he was going to fight for them, smacked of the plantation. For Baldwin (as for Ralph Ellison, the author of “Invisible Man”), the real issue was that if you were black, the complexity of your humanity wasn’t seen. And rights weren’t necessarily going to change that. The Ku Klux Klan was violent; not seeing someone’s full humanity was…a quieter form of violence. (It was soul murder.) Baldwin saw that a racist society oppresses, but that it also hollows out the souls of those who are doing the oppressing. For Baldwin, racism against black people was, fundamentally, a way that white America had come up with to play out its own psychological disfigurement. And until white America came to grips with that, the society would remain broken.
This is a message of far greater relevance today, when so many legal rights have been won, but hatred now threatens to tear America apart. James Baldwin foresaw all this. In “I Am Not Your Negro,” he speaks to us, like a somberly eloquent ghost from the past, and what he says is: The thing we think of as the “American racial problem” is not the American racial problem. It’s a crisis of the American spirit, with race as the excuse. It’s the disease that we must heal, or it will destroy us. To hear that message echo through “I Am Not Your Negro” is to feel uplifted in the special way that only James Baldwin could uplift you. It’s to feel cleansed, but warned. It’s to feel that the fire is here.