'I Am Not Your Negro' Gives James Baldwin's Words New Relevance

Originally published on February 10, 2017 10:33 am

Editor's note: This piece includes quotes from James Baldwin in which he uses a racial slur.

Fimmaker Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro features the work of the late writer, poet, and social critic James Baldwin. Baldwin's writing explored race, class and sexuality in Western society, and at the time of his death in 1987, he was working on a book, Remember This House. It was never completed, but his notes for that project became the foundation for Peck's I Am Not Your Negro.

Among those notes was a letter J Baldwin wrote to his literary agent, Jay Acton, in 1979. In that letter, he wrote that he wanted to explore the lives of three of his civil rights movement contemporaries and close personal friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. "I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other as in truth they did," he wrote, "and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much who betrayed them and for whom they gave their lives."

Peck had been wanting to make a film about Baldwin for years, but he says it felt like an impossible one to make. When he first read Baldwin's letter, he knew he had the basis for that film. "I had access to those notes, which for me was the real opening I needed to address the film I wanted to make — which was how do I make sure that people today come back to Baldwin and the important writer that he was, and the important words that he have written, and [have] this well-needed confrontation with reality today with words that he wrote 40, 50 years ago?"

The Haitian-born filmmaker has been a fan of Baldwin's writing since he was a teenager. "He helped me understand the world I was in," Peck says. "He helped me understand America. He helped me understand the place I was given in this country."

And Peck wanted to do the same with I Am Not Your Negro. In the documentary, he weaves together archival images and footage to illustrate the impact Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X had — the ways in which they were different, and perhaps more importantly, the ways in which they were alike. Peck says MLK Jr and Malcolm X are often portrayed as being polar opposites in the civil rights movement, but at the times of their deaths, they had in fact become increasingly interested in economic injustice and the class disparity.

"One of the important parts of this story is that both of them were leaving the race issue, because they understood that it was just one side of the battle," Peck says. "It's about class — how in this country, the classes reproduce themselves. If you're born rich, you have a 99% chance to stay rich. If you are born poor, you have a 99% chance to stay poor. That's the big great story of the American dream. It was always the dream of a minority."

But I Am Not Your Negro isn't just a history of the civil rights movement, or its key players. The film also examines, as James Baldwin did in his writing, institutions of racism and the ways they have been upheld throughout the years in American society by people in power, even by Hollywood, through stereotypes and erasure.

"Leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are, in one way, too familiar with already. What this does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality," Baldwin said. "This means, in the case of an American negro, born in that glittering republic. And the moment you were born, since you don't know any better, every stick and stone, every face is white, and since you have not seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you! It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you."

Peck says Baldwin deconstructed Hollywood, "and all the soft power that Hollywood means, and the lies that is also transported in those films. This is something that we need to confront ourselves with." Indeed, confronting ourselves is at the core of I Am Not Your Negro. When Peck began working on the film ten years ago, he meant to rely mostly on Baldwin's words. As he worked, however, the narrative shifted.

"It became scarier and scarier because I realized I was making a film where the reality was galloping even quicker than I was making it. At the time, my concern was, how do I put these important words of James Baldwin on the front row? You know, how do I make them accessible to the new generation? And as I was editing this film, we started to have those images of young black men being killed — of the resistance, of Black Lives Matter, of young people again going on the streets to protest. And it was incredible to see. It's happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing have changed fundamentally."

So Peck turns Baldwin's words into a mirror on modern audiences by juxtaposing the archival tape of the civil rights movement, or Baldwin's speeches and television appearances, with carefully chosen contemporary footage. As Baldwin speaks about the possibility or impossibility of a black president, Peck plays tape from the first Obama inauguration. As Baldwin talks about how black people have seen the "corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you, not from anything they have done — they were too young to have done anything," the film shows photographs of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.

And, in a 1963 television segment titled "The Negro and the American Promise," as Baldwin speaks about the way Malcolm X validates protesters' existence, a young black protester shouts "I am" on the streets of Ferguson in 2013 — and Baldwin muses, "There are days — this is one of them — when I wonder, how precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how are you going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?"

Raoul Peck says that Baldwin always spoke directly to his audiences — then and even now — and his words were frank and direct without being cruel. Baldwin put the onus of change squarely on people in positions of power and privilege. "What white people have to do," Baldwin said once, "is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I'm a man. If I'm not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question."

Because, as Baldwin wrote, "not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" is nominated for an Oscar. It features the work of the late James Baldwin, American writer, poet and social critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JAMES BALDWIN: The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

CORNISH: Baldwin explored race, class and sexuality in Western society. At the time of his death in 1987, he was working on a book titled "Remember This House." His notes for that project became the foundation for "I Am Not Your Negro," which premieres in theaters today. NPR's Mallory Yu has this report. And a note, it includes archival audio of James Baldwin using a word that many find offensive.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: James Baldwin first laid out his plans for the book "Remember This House" in a letter to his literary agent in 1979. In it he wrote that he wanted to explore the lives of three of his civil rights contemporaries and close personal friends - Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Here's actor Samuel L. Jackson, who reads Baldwin's writing throughout the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (Reading) I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and used their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they love so much who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.

YU: When filmmaker Raoul Peck first read Baldwin's letter, he knew he had the basis of his film.

RAOUL PECK: Which was, how do I make sure that people today come back to Baldwin and the important words that he have written and this well-needed confrontation with reality today with words he wrote, you know, 40, 50 years ago.

YU: The Haitian-born filmmaker has been a fan of Baldwin's work since he was a teenager.

PECK: He helped me understand the world I was in. He helped me understand America. He helped me understand the place that I was given in this country.

YU: And Peck wanted to do the same with "I Am Not Your Negro." In the documentary, he weaves together archival images and footage to illustrate the impact Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had, the ways in which they were different and more importantly the ways they were alike. But it is not just a history of the civil rights movement or its key players. The film also examines, as James Baldwin did throughout his life, institutions of racism and the way they have been upheld throughout the years in American society, by people in power, even by Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO")

JACKSON: (Reading) Because Uncle Tom refuses to take vengeance in his own hands, he was not a hero for me. Heroes, as far as I could see, were white and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.

PECK: It's about the deconstruction of Hollywood and all the soft power that Hollywood means and the lies that is also transported in those films. This is something that we need to confront ourself with.

YU: Confronting ourselves is at the core of "I Am Not Your Negro." When Peck began working on the film 10 years ago, he says he meant to rely mostly on Baldwin's words, but as he worked the narrative shifted.

PECK: It became scarier and scarier because I realized I was making a film where the reality was galloping even quicker than I was making it. At the time my concern was, how do I put these important words of James Baldwin on the front row? You know, how do I make them accessible to the new generation? And as I was editing this film, we started to have those images of young black men being killed - of the resistance, of Black Lives Matters, of young people again going on the streets to protest. And it was incredible to see. It's exactly - it's happening again, almost the same words and the same anger. And then you see that, my God, nothing have changed fundamentally.

YU: So Peck turns Baldwin's words into a mirror on modern audiences by mixing the archival tape with carefully chosen contemporary footage - the first Obama inauguration, Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson, Mo., photos of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. This juxtaposition is particularly strong when Baldwin muses on a 1963 television segment titled "The Negro And The American Promise."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: How precise are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?

YU: Raoul Peck says Baldwin spoke directly to his audiences then and even now. And he put the onus of change squarely on people in positions of privilege and power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: I'm not a nigger. I'm a man. If I'm not the nigger here, and though you invented him - you, the white people invented him - then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether I was able to ask that question.

YU: Because, as James Baldwin wrote, not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. Mallory Yu, NPR News. and.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY FEHRENBACH SONG, "INDIGO ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.