I See What You Do

There is a moment, late in I am Not Your Negro, where the great writer and thinker James Baldwin is appearing on Dick Cavett’s talk show to discuss the one subject that consumed him like no other during his life:  America’s compulsive reluctance to address the reality of its treatment of black citizens.  As Baldwin holds forth on the subject, as eloquent and expressive as he ever was, Cavett interrupts him.  Displaying the same maddening determination to show ‘both sides’ of a one-sided issue that still plagues our media today, Cavett, or some well-meaning producer, or perhaps a meddling network S&P man, decides to bring on a professor of philosophy from Yale to provide an entirely unnecessary counter-argument.  Why, this ancient and learned Caucasian demands, must Baldwin always focus on issues of race?  We are all human, and surely we love or loathe one another on specific aspects of our hearts and souls, not by the color of our skins.  Why do you, he asks of the impudent Mr. Baldwin, insist on making it all about black and white?

Baldwin — dapper, brilliant, omnipresent cigarette to hand — stops for a moment the familiar rhythms of his gorgeously articulate patterns of argument.  He no longer looks skyward, as if the heavens themselves were helping him arrange his thoughts; he instead looks at this respectable, educated liberal white man, and he visibly deflates.  You can see the burden of fifty years of dealing not only with white oppression, but of white denial of the reality of white oppression, weighing him down like a concrete slab.  You can see that he has to explain, again, what should be obvious to anyone with eyes and empathy; that he is going to have to describe, again, the stark difference in the reality of the everyday lives of whites and blacks in America; that he is going to have to make clear, again, while the grand neutrality of principle that exists in our laws is not reflected in the constant grinding reality of our world.  And, with a reluctance that he heroically does not let turn into scorn, he does:  you can talk all you want about the color-blindness of our laws, but that is not the way any of us live.  I hear what you say, Baldwin insists for what must be the thousandth time, but I also see what you do.

I am Not Your Negro (the title is drawn from the same interview, using a word rather more pointed but perhaps better left unused for marketing purposes) is an astonishingly good documentary, directed by the Haitian filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck, based on Baldwin’s unfinished notes for his final book.  Entitled Remember This House, it’s a sweeping, epic, history and memoir of civil rights in America as seen through the lens of the author’s relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.  The mere fact of its existence is itself a shameful indictment of our country’s attitude towards blacks; it is inarguably damning that one man was friends with three of the most determined opponents of racism of the 20th century, and that he saw all of them gunned down. (Baldwin never completed the book, largely due to health problems, and his publisher sued his estate to recoup the advance they’d given him — a move they’d never made for white writers in similar circumstances.)

The film is surprising, almost startling, from its very beginning.  First, it is not, as one might assume, a standard documentary about the life of James Baldwin.  It is something much more alive and electric, a sort of film essay based on his own writing; almost every word spoken on screen comes from the man himself.  We also hear his thoughts delivered in a powerfully effective dual manner:  first, through archival footage of the real Baldwin, spinning an intricate web of metaphor and history in that memorable cadence, half street preacher and half stage actor, so measured and effective, with the weight of a dancer and the precision of a surgeon; and second, in excerpts of his written material, in voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson, delivering those same thoughts and ideas in a much steelier tone, relentless and threatening but hugely intelligent, robbed of its theatricality but imbued with an unstoppable power once committed to the page.

As the film unfolds, Baldwin lays out the case that America has not, and may not ever, come to deal with its treatment of the black men and women brought here as slaves and treated like threats ever since — and that its failure to do so may be its undoing.  Through thought, memory, argument, and persuasion, through his own recollection of the teachers who helped him and the cops who abused him as well as through the ordered application of his own brilliant mind, Baldwin is shown to be as prescient as he is insightful.  Every setback, every tragedy, every act of violence is another denial of what America is and a further turning away from what it needs so badly to become.  It seems that Baldwin is literally speaking to us from the grave, not just through the application of technology that makes his work seem so alive, but from his oracular ability to predict what we would become if we refused the reckoning we so badly need:  he talks, forty years before Obama, about how the possibility of a black president would not be enough.  He spells out the quotidian brutality of the police as they try to crush every expression of black liberation, and on screen, Walsh shows us, in powerfully edited news footage, the horrific abuse of Baldwin’s brothers and sisters in the 1960s and today; the only way to tell which is which is by the increasingly technologized and inhuman appearance of the police uniforms.

I am Not Your Negro is a highly acclaimed film that has won many awards, and it may take home an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.  But much more so than any such film that I’ve seen in recent memory, it is a film that demands to be watched, a film that it feels so important to view at a time when our government is trying to drag us back in time to roll back the meager progress we have made in American race relations.  Baldwin’s message reaches out past time, past death, and forward to a posterity that will judge us for our failure to do what he begged us to do back then:  listen, understand, and act.  He still sees us, and we still fail.

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