In writing about the leaders of the 1960s, James Baldwin remembered just how young they all were. Medgar Evers and Robert F. Kennedy were 37 in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was 34, Malcolm X, 38, John F. Kennedy, 46. Baldwin was 39, the only one to survive the decade, and the only one not named Kennedy to reach the age of 40.
During the final years of his life, Baldwin, who died in 1981 at the age of 63, wrote the first thirty pages of a memoir detailing his relationships with Evers, X, and King. That unfinished manuscript, titled “Remember This House,” has been revived and reimagined in writer-director Raoul Peck’s latest work, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Though Baldwin is the documentary’s main subject, the film is not biographical, nor does it truly explore his legacy as a writer and public intellectual. Rather, Baldwin’s notes, letters, and reflections act as a kind of Trojan horse, used by the film to explore the lasting legacy of racism in the United States. The film makes use of archival footage, photographs, and Baldwin’s writing (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) to illustrate how he, as a black man, saw the world around him.
Baldwin’s effectiveness as a commentator comes from the seemingly effortless and brilliant way in which he tied political and cultural issues into one. Among his most effective critiques were those of Hollywood, and the way in which the movies falsely represented American life.
The best example Baldwin provides comes from the 1958 film “The Defiant Ones,” which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two convicts who break out of prison. In the film, Poitier’s character is able to jump on a train to escape, however, he jumps back off when Curtis’s character is unable to hop aboard.
As Baldwin says, the scene from the film was designed to provide a feel good moment for white moviegoers. According to Baldwin, while white people in the audience shared a sense of relief, black people in the audience were thinking, “Get back on the train you fool!”
“The black man jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they’re not hated,” he says.
“I Am Not Your Negro” illustrates how Hollywood pushed false narratives, and how the entertainment industry has perpetuated stereotypes and presented false realities. Baldwin recognized that movie executives can be just as powerful and problematic as those who hold public office. His insights, and the film in general, expose the hypocritical and selective way in which the history of the United States is presented, remembered, and interpreted by those who have power over our institutions and culture.
“If any white man in the world says ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad n*gger so there won’t be anymore like him,” he tells Dick Cavett.
The film’s greatest achievement comes from the way in which it blends Baldwin’s decades-old reflections, and ties them to the political and cultural issues of today. As Jackson reads Baldwin’s words, images of Barack Obama, of Ferguson, and of Black Lives Matter appear on-screen. These pictures, and Baldwin’s words, tie together the past, present, and future.
“I Am Not Your Negro” forces us to reevaluate the way in which we examine and reflect on our history. It reminds us that fights for progress span generations, and that the past is really not as far away as it may seem.