This starts out as if it were going to be a documentary recreation of a book the late James Baldwin outlined but didn’t write – about the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, iconic figures in the struggle for equal rights in the 1960s but also Baldwin’s friends. In the end, it mentions the impact these deaths had on him – but doesn’t even mention the murderers’ names. For him, the story isn’t about a tragic setback or even of martyrs who stirred a movement to overcome – this is the way things are in America, and though he died in 1987 the glimpses of contemporary footage and shots of young black men and women (kids, basically) slain by cops bear out his pessimistic vision that this will never change. Seething, he talks about a meeting with white liberal Robert F. Kennedy – whose death isn’t mentioned – and his anger at the tone of RFK’s on-the-money suggestion that in forty years time America might have a Negro President, hearing not a hope but an airy-fairy promise that eventually massa might let the hand have a turn but will always have the say-so on where and when. For Baldwin, that seigneurial allowance just wasn’t enough.
I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Haitian-American Raoul Peck, powerfully shows the equivalence between Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s and Ferguson, Missouri right now – and the news footage of frail, unarmed black folks being abused by cops got up in riot armour is as shocking and potentially mind-changing as it always was. Baldwin had made a life for himself in Paris but knew he had to get back to the US – where the action was – or seem irrelevant to the big story of his life, and one of the few times his self-possession seems to waver is when he is given a standing ovation by a blindingly white student audience after delivering a speech at Cambridge. The film gives the impression that he spent the 1960s in America, but actually he maintained his French residence and only visited – though he happened to be around and available to be quoted after many significant events. African-American writers – like jazz men and performers, all the way back to Paul Robeson – could live more free lives in Europe, but Baldwin needed to be part of the debate with Malcolm and Martin, whom he sees as individuals who came from different positions but finally agreed. What we don’t get is a sense of what they thought of him – though we get a typed report from the FBI who suspect him of being a homosexual and dangerous, though they stop short of labelling him a communist (the banners at anti-integration protests are a reminder that racial equality was once dissed as a red notion).
We see Baldwin on Dick Cavett, back when ‘the Negro question’ was put about by black and white thinkers and before the terminology shifted to black pride and black power – and the writer comes across almost as a black version of Gore Vidal, unashamedly articulate and challenging, erudite and ferocious. If we have fallen from grace in the interim, it’s because we’ve lost outlets that could allow a thinker of any kind a mass media platform like the Dick Cavett Show. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t imitate Baldwin in his narration, culled from many many works, but does relish the language as much as the content. Baldwin talks about the influence on him as a child of a white woman, a teacher with the mannish name Bill Miller, who gave him books and took him to movies and theatre – and judicious clips allow tiny thumbnails of the evolution of blackness in cinema, from Joan Crawford’s footwork in Dance, Fools, Dance (yes, he knew she was white – but look at the clip and you’ll see what he meant) through the despised scaredy comic caricatures of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best (contrasted with their all too serious equivalent, the terrified janitor accused of raping and murdering a white girl in They Won’t Forget) to a reading of the exchange of glances between Poitier and Steiger at the end of In the Heat of the Night as the equivalent of a kiss.
Baldwin spends a paragraph listing all the black organisations – the Nation of Islam, the Panthers, the NAACP, churches – he can’t affiliate with for various reasons, but the film never quite addresses the fairly obvious reasons why he felt obliged to become an outsider even among an oppressed minority. Quite apart from his sexuality, his very manner – self-possessed and literary, using phrases like a jazzman uses notes and without even a hint of black preacher – is a contrast with the likes of Harry Belafonte, who are also seen in archive TV clips being interviewed, let alone the voices we associate with black radicalism in the subsequent fifty years.