I couldn’t help feeling like the film wasn’t made for me; rather, it’s for (white) spectators peeking into black culture for, perhaps, the first time.
I may be one of the few critics who didn’t walk away overwhelmed by Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the new documentary centered on a letter James Baldwin wrote to his literary agent that visualizes an unpublished work on three black leaders who were pivotal to the black power struggles: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not because I didn’t enjoy the film — I loved it, actually. The cinematography was riveting. Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceover work was soothing, in a Langston Hughes weary-blues sort of way. He’s no Baldwin, but his respect for the material is apparent. IANYN was everything we’ve come to love and admire about James Baldwin: eloquence, passion, spiritual ascension, uncompromising truth. Baldwin speaks in poetry. Watching his public appearances is a treat. The man has an uncanny ability to verbally articulate his ideas exactly as he sets them down on the page, leaving the listener with the feeling that they’ve just experienced the first draft of a new literary masterpiece.
There’s also my preference for playwright and Baldwin’s good friend, Lorraine Hansberry, only because her radical brand of politics resonates with me in a way that Baldwin’s does not. And she, too, speaks as if she was writing. Which is to say: brilliantly.
However, aside from the sheer pleasure of witnessing Baldwin’s mind at work on the big screen, his lively and meticulous thought process penetrating through his sparkling eyes and wide, gap-toothed smile, I cannot say that I learned anything new about his life and mission.
Most of the footage, interspersed with Baldwin’s words, can be found on YouTube, and most of it I’ve already seen. Yes, I am one of those oddball people who will do a random YouTube search for a Baldwin-related clip. One video that I’ve watched a gazillion times — that’s how much I love it! — is his famous interview with black psychologist Kenneth Clark, where he unpacks the allure and specific traits that differentiate Malcolm X’s and Dr. King’s activist philosophies. Probably the only new information in the movie that surprised me, really, is the extent of his personal interaction with Medgar Evers.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling like the film wasn’t made for me; rather, it’s for (white) spectators peeking into black culture for, perhaps, the first time. Maybe it’s the fact that the particular evening showing that I went to was filled with an eager white audience, one that led me to think “Awwww, who better to guide you, white moviegoers, through black culture than one of the black literary greats of all time?
I am not suggesting — or, at least, I don’t mean to — that all black people are born with a complete mental record of black history or have black cultural facts on instant recall. That’s certainly not the case. Any black person unfamiliar with Baldwin will walk away with knowledge of how white supremacy has, and in many respects, continues to operate in America.
Nonetheless, the more I watched, the more I got the sense that Baldwin’s ABC-style exposition of race and racism was for a white liberal viewership with little idea of what life inside the U. S. — from the Watts riots to the abuse and murder of black men and boys like Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown to the unlikely election of Barack H. Obama to the Ferguson outbreak — is like for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of America’s enslaved black population.
Peck does manage to establish a line of connection between the black power era to Black Lives Matter. And, the note on which he concluded the film, in which Baldwin suggests that whiteness was invented so that white people could hide from themselves, and that only white people can ultimately resolve that issue, is something that blacks are already very attuned to. That’s a message for white people.
There’s definitely something in IANYN for everyone. But there’s more in it for white people.