James Baldwin considered himself “a witness” who dedicated much of his life to investigating the so-called “Negro Problem,” and the racial constructions that colonization birthed. What is a nigger? What purpose does it serve to flatten someone's otherwise nuanced identity?
“If I'm not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you've got to find out why,” Baldwin contends. “And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” examines the idea of race, for people of color—who are given marginal identifications—and for those assigning the identifications: “white” people. Raoul Peck's documentary is not just a chronicle of Baldwin's memories, but a thorough historical compendium of America's morbid obsession with the idea of whiteness—a construct Baldwin states is “a metaphor for power, and this is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”
Based on “Remember This House,” one of Baldwin's unfinished books, “I Am Not Your Negro” begins with Baldwin's hesitant journey to the south, where he'd discuss the ghosts of his martyred brethren, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with their widows and children. The American Republic (as Baldwin often referred to the United States of America) feared these three men because they threatened the racialized caste system on which the early American economy was, and still is, dependent.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates selections from “Remember This House” and Baldwin’s 1976 essay “The Devil Finds Work” over archival footage of the writer in interviews and lectures. Peck and archivist Marie-Helene Barberis juxtapose the footage and excerpts from popular films with contemporary clips from unrest across the country in Ferguson and Baltimore (among others).
In ‘Heroes,’ one of the film’s six chapters, Peck begins with one of Baldwin’s early childhood memories, recounted in “The Devil Finds Work,” recalling an atypical mentorship with one of his white school teachers who exposed him to books, films, and theater he otherwise could not easily access. It cuts quickly to an assessment of typecasting for black actors in those films: “In these days, no one resembling my father has yet made an appearance on the American cinema scene. No, it is not entirely true. There were, for example, Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best and Mantan Moreland, all of whom, rightly or wrongly, I loathed. It seemed to me they lied about the world I knew, and debased it, and certainly I did not know anybody like them—as far as I would tell; for it is also possible that their comic, bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning a terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed.”
Cue a montage of stereotypically black, masculine caricatures and clips from the films Baldwin invokes, further illuminating “The Devil Finds Work,” one of Baldwin's sharpest critiques about the ways media has been used to condone and condition America’s racial imaginary. At one point, as Baldwin discusses actor Clinton Rosemond, playing a terrified black janitor in “They Won’t Forget,” Peck includes a clip from the film where the camera rests on a close-up of the janitor’s fearful face. Then he cuts to John Wayne shooting caricatured Native Americans. We quickly realize through Baldwin’s reflections who America portrays as a hero, and who it protects. We also become aware of who America perceives as witless and savage, and thus whose humanity it deems less valuable and unworthy of protection. In these examples, white “heroes” kill, capture, or jail the Other, to reinforce and solidify their statuses.
“I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought vengeance was theirs to take,” Jackson as Baldwin intones. “And yes. I understood that: My countrymen were my enemy. I suspect that all these stories are designed to reassure us that no crime was committed. We've made a legend out of a massacre.”
As several Native Americans are shot and fall dead from their horses, John Wayne continues to shoot more. And then we’re at a Cambridge University debate from 1965 between Baldwin and William Buckley Jr. Peck’s crosscutting and extended montage establish clear and associative connections, much like Baldwin does in his work. And when Peck’s cuts catalog violent parallels between America's past and present, he builds on Baldwin's words.
The overarching message of “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is both encouraging and profoundly depressing, is a specific call to action, a challenge for Americans, particularly “white” Americans, to cast off the identification of whiteness, and of blackness/the nigger, in pursuit and acknowledgment of a greater humanistic worldview. Baldwin believed in this possibility, but he was also incredibly critical of it, and he relied heavily on examples from visual and literary culture to reveal these constructions.
“I Am Not Your Negro” exhibits Baldwin's brilliance—his ability to surpass and expose the imprints that should have pacified him—and highlights his requests for white accountability.
Almost 30 years after Baldwin’s death, America has seen no sign of this awakening. America is experiencing a kind of political regression, in which the most extreme sects of the conservative right—the white supremacist underbelly of our nation who were shamed into obscurity—now feel emboldened to reassert their claims to whiteness, to power. That Baldwin rests the fate of the country in the hands of white people, who have everything to gain from remaining entrenched in the privileges of white identification, is utopian at best and suicidal at worst.
And yet so much of what Baldwin suggests lies in a critical dissection of the intersections between gender, sexuality, race, and power, which sustain privileged hierarchies, and “I Am Not Your Negro” falls short in this way. Baldwin’s sexuality is mostly obscured except for a brief statement in his FBI file; and women's contributions to the movement were similarly scarce, other than a cryptically short account of a meeting between Lorraine Hansberry and former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, followed by a sharp cut to her obituary.
Then again, “I Am Not Your Negro” leaves many unanswered questions, presumably because the documentary's source material was also unfinished. But this is also a success of the film. “I Am Not Your Negro” offers access to the tools from Baldwin’s house so that others can pick them up and continue taking apart the oppressive institutions that remain.