The (Unfortunate) Timelessness of James Baldwin: A Discussion of I Am Not Your Negro

In the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro James Baldwin states, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America…it is not a pretty story.” I Am Not Your Negro is just that, not a pretty story but definitely a necessary one. Raoul Peck’s film is a meditation on racial violence against black Americans as articulated by the brilliant Baldwin. Organized around the deaths of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, the film traces Baldwin’s heartbreak. We mourn in unison — we mourn the three men but we, as an audience, also mourn justice as we watch the influence of white supremacy in politics and popular culture. Managing Editor Sara Kloepfer and I discuss the film, thinking about the importance of Peck’s and Baldwin’s intervention and its relevance today.

Sara Kloepfer: I saw I Am Not Your Negro a few weeks ago.

Efe Igor: Me too!!! What did you think? I have been waiting to have this conversation with you.

SK: Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed. I had really high expectations because I’d heard so many good things, but it wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be.

EI: I had the opposite reaction. I also went in with extremely high expectations. I listened to a great conversation between our favorites Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris of Still Processing and Raoul Peck (the director), which really got me excited about how the film speaks to current political events and was actually worried that I had unrealistic expectations. But as I scarfed down my chocolate-covered peanuts, the intimacy that Peck created made me feel remarkably vulnerable. I hung onto every word of Baldwin’s as if I was at church. What left you feeling lukewarm about the film?

SK: I also listened to that interview on Still Processing, as well as some conversations with Raoul Peck on other podcasts (Slate’s Represent, The Stakes). I loved the archival footage of Baldwin speaking on talk shows, and I think a lot of the film’s power came from how (unfortunately) relevant his words still are, but the film itself felt disjointed to me. This might just be me being a nitpicky film nerd, but I really wasn’t feeling a lot of the formal elements. The intertitles for the chapters and the typewriter effect for his letters seemed somewhat amateurish to me. A lot of Peck’s film clip selections seemed somewhat random, and that was really distracting.

EI: For me that spoke to the unfinished quality of the book the film was based on. Because it is based on Baldwin’s Remember This House, which commemorates the life of Baldwin’s friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, I felt that the presentation really made use of the provisional-ness of his book. It really felt like we were witness to him thinking through the deaths of these great men as well as mourning them.

SK: I found the subject matter more enticing than the delivery, if that makes sense. I just left feeling underwhelmed, and I can’t exactly put my finger on why.

EI: Are there examples of films tackling similar issues that successfully delivered the similar content?

SK: I wasn’t necessarily comparing it to other documentaries, especially since the nature of this one is quite unique, I just felt like there were so many disparate thematic threads and I didn’t feel like they were effectively woven together. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily apply or map on in the same way that other genre comparisons can be made.

EI: I hear that. For some reason it felt more like an art film to me than a documentary. Or more accurately something in-between.

SK: It didn’t “feel” like a documentary in the sense that there were no talking heads, but plenty of other docs do that too. I think part of my frustration with this film was that I felt like nothing new was being said. There were obvious parallels that Peck was drawing between Baldwin’s words and current events, like Ferguson, but again, most of the film clips felt a bit random to me. I wasn’t sure what the takeaway was supposed to be. Not that I needed Peck to hold my hand, but I felt it lacked a clear sense of purpose. What did you take away from it?

EI: The power for me came in its repetition. At the end I was in a pool of tears because of the way in which Baldwin was able to articulate a pain that I have been feeling for some time since moving to the United States. I felt his generosity and the grief that accompanied each new death. I appreciated Baldwin’s ability to speak truth to power even as the state continued to defile black bodies. I was more in awe with the grace of Baldwin, the power of his voice to stand alone. For as Shannon M. Houston of Paste Magazine states in her review, “Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning — what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening).” It also felt like it wasn’t about educating white people like some many new films. I felt like it was intended for me.

SK: It definitely did not have a “101” feel. You can only draw the parallels between Baldwin’s words and the police violence in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country if you are already familiar with those cases.

EI: Exactly. It also made me want to do more research. I was curious about the end with the reference to Chase Bank and the portraits of all those families. It left me wanting to do work. It indicted whiteness in such a clear and articulate way but also didn’t alienate white people. It also didn’t exclude POCs for the sake of “educating” white folks.

SK: I also felt the need to do more research after. The film definitely made me realize how inadequate my elementary and high school U.S. history education was. I went with two of my friends, both non-black POC women, and none of us knew who Medgar Evers was.

EI: I also didn’t know who he was. In Canada we tended to focus on Malcolm and Martin. The film made me realise how the biography of strong men sometimes stands in for history. I like the focus on the children and women, the people often left out and behind.

SK: What is your personal understanding of Baldwin? Which of his works have you read, and how did they connect to this film for you?

EI: My first encounter with Baldwin was “The Fire Next Time” for my Global Black Power class. It moved me. He moved me. I read it when campus protests erupted all over the United States. It was powerful to see again that repetition. His ability to convey my sense of loss, was a confirmation of my fears and feelings. It was extremely validating. Which works have your read?

SK: I’ve read Giovanni’s Room, but funny enough I felt like I got to know Baldwin best through this amazing essay by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.

EI: I will check it out. Also Baldwin was just so important to how people articulate racial problems in the United States, and there have been very few people that can approximate his clarity.

SK: There’s a moment in one of his interviews in the film where he shuts down this white scholar who basically asks why he always makes it about race, and my friends and I were like “damn, that’s how you do it!” It felt like a good lesson for how to deal with trolls or devil’s advocate arguments.

EI: YASSSSS! That moment was everything. I agree. He just models so many great ways to engage productively.

SK: Just like when I saw Get Out, I looked around the theater afterward to see who was in the audience, and it was a small crowd, but it was mostly white people. Some POC, but maybe three or four black people. So it seems like a lot of “woke” white folks are watching this film. What was your theater like?

EI: So I had been planning to see this movie for a minute but school kept on getting in the way. And finally I was meeting with a new friend and she mentioned she was going and invited me. So it was a strange experience in that I went with three strangers but it oddly brought us all together. I was the only POC in our group. I’m not sure about the rest of the audience.

SK: That’s a heavy movie to see with strangers!

EI: Tell me about it. I was crying at the end too and we all sat there for a minute, no words shared. But it strangely connected us in this beautiful way. It was pretty heavy but necessary. What did you think of Baldwin’s proclamation that America “needed a nigger”. The plainness and power of such a simple statement drove me to tears. My first week in New Haven I was called a “nigger” when I was crossing the street. The driver ran a red light. I was so scared. Baldwin’s words so neatly described the violence of white supremacy and the divisions and fictions created to maintain power.

SK: I’m sorry Efe, that’s awful. I also found that to be the most profound statement in the film. Baldwin calls on white Americans to look at themselves and figure out why they need to oppress other people in order to feel secure. That’s the kind of message that every Tr*mp supporter really needs right now.

EI: PREACH! That moment made me think about the how fictions inform and dictate reality. Like Houston states, “I Am Not Your Negro is a celebration of the power of cinema, and an indictment against Hollywood’s insistence on stories that speak to the desires of a white population molded by white supremacist ideals. Supremacy, Baldwin and Peck remind us, comes in many forms, including beloved, fictional white heroes and fictional black heroes who exist to reassure white movie-goers that black people do not despise them.” The film allowed me to engage with a different medium that tackles the same issues I read about for school. I think it was also another offering of Baldwin the world needed. It felt like a gift.

 

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