There are not many films that destabilize my ignorance, uprooting it from some locked portion of my mind. I am not referring to the kind of ignorance attributed to something I know absolutely nothing about (see the previous review on a film about a Chadian dictatorship). No, this ignorance stems from something I know of: the civil rights movement, the racial and social struggles befallen on African Americans, and the white scare accompanying this conflict. Yet, as I sat in the theatre and Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro proudly shone on the giant screen, I was reminded of this certain ignorance swelling in my mind because one of the biggest question I had going into this screening was: who the hell was James Baldwin?
Peck's film is undoubtedly an essay film, stitched together by the words of the first thirty pages of a book Baldwin was to finish before he passed on, entitled Remember This House. Baldwin traces the evolution of systemic racism in America lens through the deaths of three of his contemporaries and friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As if Peck has resurrected the soul of the scholar, whose words hover through the air of the theatre embodied by the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in a hushed tone bubbling with a suave courage of spearheading intellectualism. Coupled with the numerous and fortunate interviews of Baldwin, where we regard his wide-eyed and curious complexion, I Am Not Your Negro transcends the basis of an essay film and becomes conversational; Baldwin is talking to us and we are listening. Sitting there, the audience and I are wrapped by confident prose of outcry, unique passados toward white American culture and its fossilizing antiquities.
"History is not the past. History is the present."
So says Baldwin at some point in the film. A riveting statement that, after only a few days, is branded into my mind. Maybe it was branded in Peck's mind to because the visuals, which almost seem to dance in a carefree nature, are indelibly hinged upon the recitation of Baldwin's ideas. Peck distributes footage across many epochs, ignoring the more traditional notion of time that is flows like a river or flies in one direction like an arrow. Rather, the editing celebrates the alternative interpretation of time in that it is an expanding splash in a still pond, rippling out ungoverned. The Watts riots blend into Ferguson, Doris Day morphs into lynchings, and a medium close up of Baldwin cuts to a shot of a living breathing black man staring proudly into the camera. All the while the congealing of Baldwin's thoughts levitate over what we are required to see; what has passed is contemporary and the problem persists. History is not the past. History is the present.
So with Peck grouping the struggles of the past with the struggles of the present, he and Baldwin peel away at a fundamental and cultural irresponsibility that has not soften, that has hid itself in shadow. Sinking into my seat as the film went on, a road wave of disparagement hit me. Was I feeling guilty on behalf of white America? I'm not sure but I knew I felt bad. And to place I Am Not Your Negro into the larger cinematic climate, if this film represents the unveiling or introduction to such irresponsibility then Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America is that irresponsibility put into practice, where a troubled man was seen as a symbol by everyone which, in turn, exposed a serious problem of perception and how huge of a divide we do have in our country (along with, of course, two murdered individuals).
I left the theatre knowing who James Baldwin was. If there is a weakness of this film it’s that I only wished to linger in his timeless presence longer. His early life, organized in a chapter entitled “Heroes,” is brilliant as it is shocking. We moved on from such an episode too soon. Yet, I know him now. History is not past. History is the present. That is no more true than the influence of James Baldwin. His presence in the now comes in the form of the ignorant, like me, to maintain curiosity. I think I will read one of his plays.