I Am Not Your Negro: A Review

Ciahnan Darrell on race in America

James Baldwin with statue of Shakespeare. Photo by Allan Warren. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
James Baldwin with statue of Shakespeare. Photo by Allan Warren. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The lie called race makes Judases of us all, bleeding the human until all that remains is an abstraction with no claim to rights or life.

I Am Not Your Negro is, as James Baldwin remains, a blade that severs bone, a flash of metal that opens the marrow of America’s racial madness to the keening air, and for this we owe Raoul Peck a debt of gratitude. His movie throbs with the feral eloquence to which Baldwin famously gave voice, a lyric cadence strained to its limit by rage, sorrow, and perpetual hope. If it is viewed attentively, considered deeply, and discussed with the integrity, patience, and passion with which Baldwin lived, then it will no doubt have a role to play in shepherding American discourse on race beyond abstraction and antagonism in the direction of the human, which remained at the center of Baldwin’s thought for the whole of his life. To be human, according to Baldwin, is to feel pain, a searing alienation that waxes as a molecular agony, wanes as a febrile shudder, and can only be alleviated by the touch of a human hand. “To encounter oneself, is to encounter the other,” he says, “and this is love.”

One of the great poverties of our time is visible in how little this statement likely means to us; professing, as we do, our love for family pets, cartoon characters, diet soda, blood relatives, and yoga pants, it is rather unsurprising when an invocation of “love” falls stillborn upon our ears. Peck’s documentary conjoins Baldwin’s words with images that bear out the poverty of America’s love for her African-American children, images of unconscionable violence, senseless deprivation, and importantly, images of people bearing up under the burden of their oppression. At times the naked force of the images Peck has composed obliterates Baldwin’s words, which is as it should be: to name something is to domesticate it, to sanitize it, if only in our minds. Some powers are too great to be contained within words, and Peck is clear that if we imagine otherwise, we deceive ourselves at our own peril.

We are shown images of whites protesting integration with swastikas, of white men in suits assaulting black men and women and children; we are shown the dangling bodies of black men and women, screw-necked, their twisted arms reaching lifeless in supplication to a god who did not hear their pleas, or did, and did not care to do anything as the white mob leered, or smiled, below them. Bereft in the face of these images, we would like to say that I Am Not Your Negro pulls no punches, but of course we cannot. We cannot because there are so many more; yes, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, but also Bennie Simmons, Nease Gillepsie, John Gillepsie, “Jack” Dillingham, Henry Lee, George Irwin, Allen Brook, Jesse Washington, and Dick Robinson; had Peck wished to punish white Americans by rubbing their face in the perversity of what they have done to African-Americans, he could have. But that is not what his movie is about.

Interspersed amongst the stills of racial carnage, the black and white footage of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the technicolor footage of Ferguson, of the mass shootings, of the execution of Eric Garner, are images of such grace and beauty that we feel rather than see them, though our eyes lap desperately at their serenity. There is a scene in which the camera is looking out through the windshield of a car in a heavy rain; it is an extended shot, and as the seconds pass and the rainwater flows down the glass in braided cords, soft and quiet and beautiful against a backdrop of hate and suffering, I feel my chest swell with gratitude. Then, in a moment, I realize that this is the story, that Peck has distilled the essence of his movie into a single sequence of rain falling on glass. The gentle susurrous of water riding the contours of the windshield offers a moment of peace only for those not subject to perpetual peril. America denies this lush and lambent world to the children she seems to hate, the African-Americans for whom life is made to be a mortal struggle.

White America, Baldwin notes, claims that God is love but turns deaf ears toward His commandment to love, and watching I Am Not Your Negro, we see that the cost of doing so is the heart’s ability to feel; we see images of racist iconography that anger or embarrass us, but it is the images of children and families that undo us, of young lovers smiling beneath the lynching tree. We find ourselves face to face with the moral apathy that has allowed America to devour the flesh and poison the souls of her children, and we are terrified. This constitutes as urgent a reason to watch the film as exists. Peck reminds us, as have Ta-Nehisi Coates and Douglas Field and Cornel West, that for Baldwin, love is an exacting, unrelenting, and impossible to fulfill obligation that will take each of us to our grave, but which alone can save us. To love, in Baldwin’s terms, is to attempt to understand that someone other than oneself is real, that someone else’s pain is real. Peck responds to this charge by rendering tight, sharp frames, vivid in detail, scenes which are nothing less than acts of love, and would deserve plaudits even if they didn’t convey the density of racialized experience, its textures, sounds, and psychological aspects, which they do.

Peck’s movie awes and frustrates. His sense of timing and aesthetic balance are nearly perfect, and he has interwoven archival still photography, cinema, and television from bygone eras with the media of the here and now to produce a visually stunning and emotionally charged narrative edifice with enviable dexterity. Moreover, he does a sterling job establishing Baldwin’s refusal to participate in his own racialized oppression, and is particularly successful when he shows a clip from Baldwin’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, in which Baldwin refuses to allow Cavett’s dehumanizing evocation of “the Negro” to pass into a facile and narcotizing optimism. I Am Not Your Negro captures the vertiginous complexity of race and racism in America, the ways in which it pervades the whole of human life, remaking the world in the form of a waking nightmare.

 I Am Not Your Negro’s treatment of James Baldwin is the least successful aspect of a very good film. In the companion book released in conjunction with the movie, Peck confesses to rearranging—and even altering—Baldwin’s words, and while this course of action is common, it creates an ambivalence that must be dealt with. Peck appropriates Baldwin’s words for his own purposes, picking and choosing from dozens of essays and interviews, in some cases dismembering them, leaving their spiritual and emotional force behind. If one reads I Am Not Your Negro solely as an exploration of the roots of American racism, this rearrangement poses no problem; historiography is under no obligation of fidelity to individuals. To read the movie as such, however, one must accept that James Baldwin’s insights were separable from James Baldwin, which I find untenable for there was no time or place in which James Baldwin was not set apart, a man in many ways without a country, and, agonizingly, without a people.

He was marked, too, by pain. And there are times in I Am Not Your Negro when it seems Baldwin has absorbed the pain of a people even in the face of their rejection. Sitting despondently in a pew at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, the camera clings to Baldwin’s face, and his eyes are so wretched and dense with sorrow that they drive you back in your seat; they are abhorrent, garroted, bereft of light, of humanity.

They are pain.

Baldwin knew pain, but perhaps more than anything, he knew isolation. A brilliant and tortured man, he was never entirely accepted by the very African-Americans whose dignity and intrinsic value he championed, and he was frequently criticized, derided, and dismissed by African-American leaders and intellectuals such as Eldridge Cleaver, Harold Cruse, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and even Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin’s unabashed homosexuality, a matter about which I Am Not Your Negro is silent, cost him dearly, drawing the ire of Black and White America alike. Time magazine wrote in 1963 that Baldwin was “‘effeminate in manner’ [and] ‘not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader.’” Amiri Baraka famously described Baldwin as the “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party.” Robert F. Kennedy referred to Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.” This wore at Baldwin, ground him down, and we see in No Name in the Street how hungry and desperate he was for human contact as he reaches out to Cleaver, praising his work and expressing a desire to rekindle their friendship. The overture was not returned.

Lush and fierce and beautiful as it may be, I Am Not Your Negro betrays both Baldwin, and the denizens of the Civil Rights Movement in ways too important to allow to pass without remark. First, while ninety minutes is an insufficient amount of time to identify and articulate the differences that exist between and among James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, the movie fails even to create space for such differences, implying the existence of a unity that elides the disagreements among the men. In doing so, the movie obscures the similarities that, in moments, brought them together in the face of those differences.

Second, while Samuel L. Jackson’s narration is excellent, the script struggles to keep pace with the visuals, and is thus at times forced to overrun nuance in an attempt to keep up. While bricolage is a rich method that opens unique and interesting possibilities, it is, by definition, eclectic, and consequently fractures narratives which, while not an insurmountable challenge, is nonetheless an impediment to creating a unified documentary. Peck does, for the most part, an admirable job managing this difficulty; however, he does so, as previously mentioned, by reordering Baldwin’s texts, phrases, and words. There are times when his selection and reordering can be jarring, for instance when he leaps from No Name In the Street (1972), to Notes of A Native Son (1955), to “Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Unites States” (1961), as he does on page ninety-five of the companion book. If one has never read Baldwin, then this won’t pose a problem, but I found it distracting, especially in light of the fact that Baldwin’s thought on society, race, and politics is marked by several significant critical shifts, in relation to the Black Power movement, for example. Peck exacerbates the resulting confusion by taking liberties with Baldwin’s words that toe the line between use and exploitation, as perhaps do all who take up the lives and words of others. Yet one cannot help but feel that something essential is lost in the reduction of Baldwin’s

The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.  It is not a very pretty story:  the story of a people is never very pretty.  The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that.  He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle.  One may say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.


The story of the Negro in America

is the story of America.

It is not a pretty story.

The difference between the two has to do with their movement; Baldwin’s essay is brilliant, agonized, diagnostic, and clings to the belief that one day America might be made whole, even if that faith has hands closing around its neck, and is expressed only in the fact that Baldwin continues to write, to speak truth to power. A racialized society predicated on the domination of those it deems inferior speaks of the intrinsic depravity and defects of those whose subjugation they mean to justify; Baldwin refuses such narratives, offering his own in their place. He described himself as “a forced optimist,” and was never sanguine about the prospects of racial equality in America. And yet, he was compelled to witness, to see and record the suffering of workaday human beings. I think Peck’s revision of Baldwin, here, misses the hope implicit in taking up the role of a witness, in recording for posterity the lives of those who “do not matter,” but who are nonetheless human, and therefore deserving of acknowledgement.

Granted, the movie is not “about” Baldwin, but our perceptions are mediated by his vision and words, and thus the occlusion of his sexuality is crippling to any attempt to understand him or the world given us through his eyes, especially in light of the fact that in the mid-1960s, not only did the Black Power movement dismiss homosexuals, but it did so according to a logic that attributed homosexuality to white pathology, thus constituting a type of double rejection of Baldwin. In light of Baldwin’s public persona and the many remarks he made on homosexuality, it is foolish to imagine it possible to separate his sexual identity from his racialized identity. However ambivalent Baldwin was about the term “gay,” he made it clear in The Last Interview with Richard Goldstein and elsewhere that he felt a kinship with, and an obligation to, other gay people. Peck’s silence is a betrayal of both Baldwin and Peck’s own artistic vision, and it does a disservice to the larger project of anti-racism. More importantly, though, Peck’s silence is a failure to love; having written that Baldwin “gave [him] a voice, gave [him] the words” to make sense of his life, Peck muzzles him, giving the impression that Baldwin’s thought was constrained to the topic of race, and occluding important details of his life, the scope of Baldwin’s oeuvre, and the extent of his critical faculties.

The simple fact of James Baldwin’s existence in the public consciousness in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s was transgressive in a way and to a degree that is difficult to convey in 2017, when “transgression” is a well-established and heavily commercialized genre of performance that is almost always inextricable from a hype-apparatus which packages and signals deviance in predictable ways. Baldwin antagonized white America, alienated the liberal elite, was acknowledged only reluctantly by certain of the black leadership, and was castigated and mocked by others. Moreover, his participation in the Civil Rights Movement was often circumscribed by criticism of his sexuality. Such was the cost of his deviance. Yet as Cornel West notes, James Baldwin’s greatest offense was not deviance, but integrity. He would not be complicit in his own oppression, whether it was due to his race or his sexuality. He refused to allow white society to pretend that “the negro problem” was a problem with “the negro,” rather than a transference of its own psycho-pathology, and he refused to allow the interracial world of homophobia to act as though homosexuality was a perversion, when in fact the perversion was America’s refusal to countenance love.

Let me be clear on this point: Peck’s betrayal of Baldwin does not set him apart from the rest of us, for in a land where the lie of race is sovereign, and in a nation in which we have ascended to our great heights on a staircase of black, yellow, and red corpses, betrayal is pandemic. Baldwin understood this, and his brilliance lies in his ability to track social and political contagion to its roots, his willingness to burrow into the nation’s filth in search of them, to risk choking on the miasmas of hate in order to expose the rot festering within the bowels of America so that one day our nation might be capable of loving her children, and her children of loving each other. “White America” betrays Baldwin by refusing to face the fact that white and black are inextricable, flesh of flesh and bone of bone; by being unwilling to admit that whiteness depends upon blackness, both of which are constructs created to consolidate and extend the power of the former over the latter. I Am Not Your Negro does a superb job establishing this reality, illuminating the complexity of sin that creates and sustains racial hatred by juxtaposing scenes of hate and violence with irenic images of white complacency in a way that is neither heavy-handed, nor timorous. He might have done more to underscore the injury white America inflicts upon itself and its nation in doing evil to Black America, but to criticize on that point would be cavillous. The movie exposes the truth about the role blacks and whites have played in each other’s lives and history, that “the black man’s blood is in American soil,” and that therefore, white people cannot “be divorced” from black people. Let us now close with love and betrayal.

The place of love in Baldwin’s corpus is a matter of some contestation. His 1954 play The Amen Corner portrays love as salvific and profoundly empathetic in accordance with Baldwin’s understanding of scripture. His 1962 novel Another Country was excoriated by critics who claimed he was offering a facile and insipid notion of love in a time that called for real, political solutions to pressing matters, a criticism he appears to address in The Fire Next Time (1963), which was far more political in nature and responsive to the socio-political problems of race than was his early conception. The political aspect of his writing and his notion of love became even more pronounced in the seventies as the influence of the Black Power movement on his thought and rhetoric grew; however, he was still largely unsuccessful in his attempts to win the sympathy and acceptance of the movement’s leaders.

Conversely, there are those who celebrate Baldwin’s concept of love for both its theorization of the political and its relevance to political praxis. In his book Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America Robert Genter claims that “Baldwin’s major contribution to the cultural politics of modernism was his reinvention of love as a guiding social principle … a disruptive force … that did not provide comfort, stability, or solidarity but … challenged, if not dismantled, the boundaries of the self.” These assertions are corroborated by George Shulman in his book American Prophecy, who argues that for Baldwin, love “is then a political practice, not movement beyond it.”

Love, for Baldwin, is “something active, something more like a fire … something which can change you … a passionate belief, a passionate knowledge of what a human being can do.”

It requires our presence and is inextricable from attention, from the recognition that the bald fact of someone’s humanity demands a response. To love someone is to listen to her, to watch her, and to learn from and about her. It is to allow her to tell us who and what she is rather than telling her who and what she should be. Love requires us to speak to her as truthfully as we are able, and to listen as she does the same. “Truth,” Baldwin explains, “is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference.”

I Am Not Your Negro understands the need for this devotion, and for ninety minutes it endeavors to reveal the suffering of black America, and to ease its burden by sharing it. The cinematography on display in the film is only possible because the camera sets upon its subjects in love, love either for its subject or for the battered bodies whose anguish is finally being given expression. There is love, too, in the movie’s closing words: “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. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.” Baldwin’s truth is still true today, our country is still sick, and Peck is giving white America yet another chance to understand why, another opportunity to begin the process of making itself whole.

Racism, finally, is a betrayal of human beings. It is a refusal to love. We betray ourselves, Baldwin, and those we encounter when we fail to listen and watch and speak, when we refuse to “be sensual … to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Earlier, I said Peck failed to love Baldwin, and I stand by that claim. Peck chose all but to erase the sexuality of a man whose life and tribulations were indelibly altered by his refusal to allow his sexuality to be erased; in order to do so, he either entered into a state of voluntary deafness, or placed his hand over Baldwin’s mouth.

Though I am baffled by Mr. Peck’s choice, I’m sure he meant no disrespect to James Baldwin or the gay community. Turning the critical lens on myself, I’d note the fact that it has taken me until now to acknowledge that women were given little more than token roles in the movie suggests that I have blind spots of my own, and a great distance to cover before I might be considered “woke.” Perhaps this is what Baldwin meant when he wrote that “[l]ove is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” We try, and mostly fail, to do our best, and in the end, it’s because we are at war with ourselves as much as with anything external. The truth is that the lives of others often fail to register, and that racism and bigotry will remain sovereign for so long as that is the case, as Mr. Peck clearly understands.

He has given us an important, compelling, and stunningly beautiful film.

I hope he does better next time.

Ciahnan Darrell has studied theology and philosophy at the University of Chicago and SUNY Stony Brook, respectively, and will complete his doctoral work at the University of Buffalo later this month. An Africanist, his research focuses on representations of racialized and gendered bodies in Southern African fiction. His fiction has appeared in Gone LawnThe Story Shack, Rum Punch Press, and elsewhere.