Eternal relevance of James Baldwin

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 9, 2017
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Approaching the 30th anniversary of his death, gay novelist James Baldwin suddenly seems more alive and relevant than he did in 1987, especially with the release of the searing documentary I Am Not Your Negro on DVD by Magnolia Pictures. In 1979, Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent proposing a project, Remember This House, a personal account of the lives and assassinations of his three close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin completed only 30 pages by the time he died, but Haitian-born director Raoul Peck (Lumumba ) has re-imagined on film the book he never finished, producing this feature nominated last year for an Oscar as best documentary. The film uses only words Baldwin wrote, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews, with voice-over narration by actor Samuel Jackson. We behold Baldwin not only as a visionary author, but also as an elegant performer on camera through his lectures and as a guest on talk shows, bearing witness to how racism has affected ordinary people, as well as caused his own pain.

Baldwin was a no-holds-barred social critic who moved to France in the late 1940s to escape the racism and homophobia of the US. The move also gave him the necessary distance to gain a wider perspective of what was occurring in the nation during this turbulent period. The film consists of Baldwin's prophetic commentary on the 1950s and 60s, as well as a moral sociology on black identity. Through Alexandra Strauss' skillful editing, images from a protest to end public segregation in Birmingham, Alabama (1963) morph into pictures from Ferguson, Missouri (2014), with the same excessive violence used by police against unarmed African-Americans. Baldwin's words are from an appearance on the Dick Cavett show: "If any white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death, the entire world applauds, but 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-!"

Baldwin sums up the ethical indictment against white America's treatment of its black citizens: "I'm terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don't think I'm human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means they have become in themselves moral monsters." Baldwin is just as astute in his dissection of culture, commenting on racism in Hollywood movies, to clips from Imitation of Life, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Defiant Ones. He notes that when Sidney Poitier jumps off the train to save Tony Curtis, white people were relieved and joyful, but black audiences yelled at Poitier to "get back on the train, you fool!"

Baldwin had the realization, at age 7, about "Gary Cooper's killing of the Indians: realizing, when you were rooting for him, that the Indians were you." Because a white schoolteacher gave him books to read and opened up the world to him, Baldwin "never really managed to hate white people." But that doesn't stop his razor-sharp polemic from reconciling the virtues Caucasian America claims it stands for, and how it actually behaves. "What is really happening in this country is that brother has murdered brother knowing it was his brother. It is not a racial problem but a problem of whether or not you're willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it. And it is because the American people are unable to face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them. My blood, my father's blood, is in that soil, yet I am the most despised child."

By using news footage, vintage photos, newspaper clippings, movie scenes, and onscreen texts of both past and current events, this potent documentary almost creates a new language. It exposes the lie that we have reached a post-racial consciousness, cutting through the veneer of righteousness that we have ended oppression against any minority. It's no overstatement that every white person should see this documentary of alternative American history. Although Baldwin's homosexuality is briefly referenced �" in a Hoover memo for the FBI! �" it would be great if another filmmaker could use a similar style to present Baldwin's observations on gay America, even though many of his pronouncements on race are apropos for LGBT people. This defiant, unforgettable film challenges us as a society to do better. Baldwin, an American treasure, though often caustic, says, "I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive, so I'm forced to be an optimist."