What does a revolution look like in 2017? In our cable news-facilitated present moment in which the unified voting patterns of white Americans are portrayed as a silent revolution of sorts, it’s almost hard to imagine a time when groups like The Black Panthers were even able to be revolutionary in their willingness to exercise their second amendment right to bear arms. Revolutions are now sanitarily presented through the news media complex for us to comment upon or make hashtags for regardless of whether we have ever actually experienced the oppression we so easily watch on cable news. Even when young black men are being killed for selling loose cigarettes and wearing hoodies, the myth of a post-racial America ushered in during Obama’s presidency along with centuries of entrenched casual racism have stuck around enough to cause many to still wonder why we even need to say Black Lives Matter. How, then, is a revolution even possible when we each still struggle in assessing our own culpability in the perpetuation of such blatant racism as that coming from our current commander in chief?
One person who in many way predicted a future that can feel far more hopeless than it should was was the author and essayist James Baldwin. In the early minutes of director Raoul Beck’s riveting ontological documentary I Am Not Your Negro--a movie that is a ninety-minute dissertation on the very reality of the systemic racism perpetuated for centuries in America-- we experience the full force of Baldwin, whose words and televised appearances provide the primary narration in the film. During a 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, that show’s politely liberal host asks his guest whether he’s hopeful about “the Negro” in America--one of the film’s few instances where the past actually feels of the past, removed and safe from our present moment. Baldwin does nothing to relieve the tension lingering in air before unwaveringly responding that not only is he not especially optimistic about the future, he in fact thinks the future of his race might be a hopeless one. As Cavett is momentarily stunned into silence by such uncouth honesty, Baldwin’s facial expressions exude an overwhelming sense of sadness and futility that both deflates and envelopes the viewer.
Such a prologue might not make I Am Not Your Negro sound like an especially fun film, but it’s a necessary one. The scene’s subtext establishes the film’s thesis: that black people in America are no more hopeful or better off in many more ways than they were when Baldwin’s words were spoken nearly fifty years ago. But this being an era in which we have a birther as commander-in-chief, Peck’s film serves a more basic purpose of providing a definitive answer to a question too often asked these days: Why does everything have to be about race? What makes that question especially frustrating is that it is often asked by those for whom race is not an omnipresent element of their lives.
I Am Not Your Negro joins a recent spate of mainstream black movies and shows confronting an often-white audience with the fallacy of the post-racialism supposedly ushered in during Obama’s presidency along with with the realities of what it means to be black in America. Jordan Peel’s zeitgeist-capturing boxoffice smash Get Out, the Oscar-winning films Moonlight and OJ: Made In America, and broadcast television shows like Black-ish and The Carmichael Show are just the best-known examples of an ever-growing canon that is bringing conversations formerly held within black homes and communities to a much wider audience. And while Peck’s film is certainly of the moment, its horizon looks past the most recent myth of post-racialism to put in full view the largely mythical march toward progress that African Americans have supposedly been taking since the abolition of slavery.
Peck opens his film in a seemingly parallel moment in Baldwin's and America's lives in which both are coming to terms with the pervasive injustice of racism after a period in which it seemed to have disappeared (or rather, was not reported upon or shown in popular culture). Just as we step out from underneath the cloud of post-racialism, Baldwin himself was spurred to action after spending a decade abroad in Paris upon seeing a photograph of Dorothy Counts in 1957 as she braved the hateful crowds that taunted her in her desegregating public schools. As Baldwin intones, “I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
Over the film’s next hour and change, we see countless examples of others paying their dues, be it in those who embraced the Black Power movement in the sixties or the Black Lives Matter protesters of today. For Baldwin, his words were always his way of paying his dues and made him the bracingly acute social critic that he was both then in his time and now in our present moment. Providing the overarching narration to Baldwin’s eerily prescient television appearances is the unpublished and incomplete manuscript for Remember This House. The book was intended as a personal recounting of the friendship he shared with three iconic civil rights leaders, Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, who were all killed within five years of one another. The text is brought to life by a low-key and solemn Samuel L. Jackson who reads Baldwin’s words with little flourish, to devastating effect.
In a way, Peck has assembled something of a rhetorical mixtape, an audio-visual punch to the gut that shines a light on the historical forces that have kept black Americans in a weakened position for centuries. That a voice so historically removed from our present situation is able to so surgically pinpoint the structural mechanisms and entrenched cultural stereotypes that have consistently relegated the black American to the role of a second-class citizen is at once upsetting and reassuring. For while Baldwin was particularly adept at diagnosing the many pervasive social ills that still exist today, in Peck’s hands his presence becomes an almost defiant beacon of hope, his face an eternal symbol of resistance.
I Am Not Your Negro achieves an effortless, and all-too-rare, balance of the political and the poetic in its fusing scenes of cruel inhumanity with Jackson’s inspired reading of Baldwin’s incisive analysis of the structures of power that perpetuate racism. And while a film taken from the writings of Baldwin might be inherently didactic, there are moments when Jackson’s narration fades into the background as the parallel atrocities of police beatings in both civil rights-era Selma and millennial Ferguson wash over the viewer in a wave of indignation and hopelessness. Beyond those feelings lies a certain lucidity that slowly settles over the viewer during the film’s run time, a simple answer to those who question why race still matters. It matters because in our unwillingness to talk about and learn from our country’s racist history, we truly seem doomed to continue to make the same mistakes. And it is in comprehending this awful tautology that Negro and Baldwin himself can embolden the viewer to leave the theater truly pondering how real change can be enacted, how a revolution over four hundred years due might finally come to be.
And while Peck is more than happy to let Baldwin serve as his avatar almost, it’s his directorial vision that provides the film with perhaps its most forceful moment. As the credits come up, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry” comes roaring over the film’s soundtrack to provide something of a contemporary response to Baldwin’s confrontational prose. For as furious as Baldwin’s words are, on-screen he rarely seems to give into anger, making the inclusion of “Berry” in the film’s narrative soundtrack almost necessary, a moment that gives way to a cathartic and righteous indignation that has been boiling under the surface until then.
Despite painting a portrait of America that no one should feel good about, there’s an unerring current of hopefulness that lasts long after I Am Not Your Negro has finished playing. For this viewer, Baldwin’s fatigued yet defiant face now serves as a more enriched symbolic purpose, one that is a wellspring of inspiration. One scene that best encapsulates the controlled fury that Baldwin’s words and presence channels is seen in another television appearance from the 60s. This time Baldwin is in full attack mode with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss as his unwitting piñata after the latter pedantically laments Baldwin’s purported fixation on race, just as those weary and entitled individuals question why Black Lives Matter. Peck’s genius lies in his ability to make such tacit parallels in history seem almost too obvious to the viewer, who is then forced to reflect on why we continue to make the same mistakes regarding race in America over and over again. It is in doing so that one leaves the theater likely more enlightened as to why race remains a pressing cause for concern, conversation, and action. In this age when the spectacle has taken hold and cynicism has set in, for a film to evoke such a visceral feeling of hope in the full face of racism’s all-too present history is nothing short of miraculous.