Director Raoul Peck is garnering almost universal praise for his Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” a study of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s and how the United States continues to face issues of race and social justice.
The most significant credit on the film, however, is for “writer” James Baldwin, the late author and social commentator on whose works “I Am Not Your Negro” is entirely based. Baldwin’s eloquent, often lyrical language — presented both in excellent voice-over readings by Samuel L. Jackson and in video of Baldwin’s many personal speaking appearances during the era — gives the film a deeply personal, emotional resonance not typically found in documentaries, on any subject.
“The film really examines Baldwin’s continuing relevance as not only a commentator about the Civil Rights movement, but really a writer of conscious in examining social issues in America and trying to call the country to think about not only its history, but to really call people to examine themselves and their lives,” says David Anderson, associate professor in the department of English at the University of Louisville.
Anderson, who has taught Baldwin’s work in his literature survey classes, is one of several speakers who will lead discussions at screenings of “I Am Not Your Negro” at the Speed Art Museum this month. Screenings scheduled for this week sold out in a matter of days.
Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed, says he was “thrilled” with the response. Speed has added four additional screenings that can be purchased at the Speed Cinema site (for days and times, see the bottom of this article).
“I Am Not Your Negro” is primarily based on Baldwin’s unfinished notes for a book project about the lives of murdered Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom Baldwin met and developed relationships with after he returned to the U.S. to cover the movement for Harper’s magazine.
The film is fleshed out by Baldwin’s letters and personal reflections, which often reach a poetic level, as in his description of why he decided to return to the U.S. in 1957 after moving at 24 to the Left Bank cultural scene in Paris.
“In the years in Paris, I had never been homesick for anything American. Neither waffles, ice cream, hot dogs, baseball, majorettes, movies, nor the Empire State Building, nor Coney Island, nor the Statue of Liberty nor the Daily News nor Times Square. All of these things are passed out of me. They might never had existed, and it made absolutely no difference to me if I never saw them again. But I missed my brothers and sisters, and my mother. They made a difference. I wanted to be able to see them, and to see their children. I hoped they wouldn’t forget me. I missed Harlem Sunday mornings and fried chicken and biscuits. I missed the music. I missed the style — that style possessed by no other people in the world. I missed the way the dark face closes, the way dark eyes watch, and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go everywhere.”
“He had to protect himself and get out,” Anderson says of Baldwin’s decision to leave the U.S. as a young artist. “So many things were going on in terms of race relations and other things … it was literally to physically survive. He had to leave the country. And it was a sacrifice to come back.”
Historical footage from the ‘50s and ‘60s is intercut with images from recent conflicts in Ferguson and other communities, bringing a sense of urgency and relevance to Baldwin’s observations. These threads are, of course, already clear to many, including Anderson, an African-American born and raised in St. Louis.
“I am on Facebook with a lot of former grade-school students. I was one of a handful of black students in basically otherwise what were all-white schools,” says Anderson. “I was just absolutely horrified. Some of the comments and the anger … In many ways, I have been just aghast. I mean, I am not naïve, but at the same time I was just stunned. And I guess very disappointed, in some senses.”
Film as a record of culture is used heavily, from Baldwin’s recollections of being smitten by Joan Crawford in “Dance Fools Dance” (1931); his contempt for the Stepin Fetchit depictions of African-Americans in the ’30 and ’40s; and the uneasy “male embrace” that closes “In the Heat of the Night” (1967). John Wayne’s image is repeatedly evoked as the emblem of a mythologized American past where the “heroes” claimed to the right to take “vengeance” on those whom Baldwin realized were most like himself.
“We’ve made a legend out of a massacre,” Baldwin said in a televised speech.
One of the most powerful moments in the film is Baldwin’s recollection of “They Won’t Forget” (1937), which he said is the first time he recalled seeing someone who looked like his own father in a film. The scene depicts an African-American man (Clinton Rosemond) terrified that he will be falsely accused of the murder of a white woman whose body he has discovered.
Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” Baldwin’s commentary deals not only on specific issues of race, but also on the broader context of what he, as an ex-patriot, viewed as the dehumanizing effects of America’s focus on competitive materialism — an “emptiness,” as he put it. Some of the film’s final scenes include images of school shootings (Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”) and other tragedies not necessarily assignable to race, but to other deep cultural issues.
“We’ve inherited so much, so much that nobody necessarily had to be doing anything purposely wrong … Some people probably were, but others were not,” Anderson says. “But still, you have to be aware of it. To look at the neighborhoods in Louisville, one of the most segregated cities in the country. And it’s a city I love very much … But, you know, if you take a redlining map or a map with racial statistics from 70, 80 years ago, and put it over a map of Louisville today, there’s a lot of consistency. And I think a lot of people say, ‘Well, this is just the way it is,’ or ‘This is the world in which we live,’ or ‘This is the way people want it to be,’ rather than something that is problematic that we have stepped into, and that we to a certain extent have to figure a way out.”
As of this posting, seats for the additional screenings of “I Am Not Your Negro” are still available for advance purchase at the Speed website. The dates are Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 6 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 25, at noon and 7 p.m.