To suggest that white America is finally reckoning with James Baldwin is not to succumb to a liberal notion of “progress” so much as accepting a terrible knowledge: racial tensions are at their peak. Wounds thought salved bled afresh after the election of a black president. That is, to repeat the point, white America thought these wounds salved. Listening to the clips of the great essayist collected in I Am Not Your Negro, I thought of Old Testament prophets, the Isaiahs and Zechariahs and Jeremiahs whose words in my adolescent studies of the Bible blurred into an incantatory howl; then I realized the comparison was inapposite, for we don’t have surviving audio and video of these prophets yet we do of Baldwin, a performer of rare charm and weird charisma. His power lay in that voice: a crevasse in which cigarette smoke billowed; uneven of speed but alert to irony, the weapon of the powerless; prissy even.
Watching Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro a week after the election was as bracing as a hot spring. Even if I Am Not Your Negro had played three hours of Samuel L. Jackson’s sonorous, measured readings of James Baldwin’s prose, I wouldn’t have minded; even if I Am Not Your Negro consisted of a single clip of Baldwin’s 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, it will have done its duty. “If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” he tells the host. “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 nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” Caveat’s expression is a small masterpiece of bad faith: horrorstruck at the use of a slur that as a good white liberal was forbidden to him, terrified by what he’d exposed his mainstream audience to.
Through its use of vintage photographs and print ads, I Am Not Your Negro notes the casual racism of another time that, Peck’s montage of images suggests, exists in the present day in no less unsubtle forms. Baldwin’s prose, read in voice-over by Jackson, does not bind past and present either; its pained omniscience flits through time and space. To be a witness, Baldwin reminds the audience, is “to move as largely and freely as possible.” Shots of a vacant Times Square at night have the desolation of the urban spaces on which the late Chantal Akerman’s own documentaries lingered; juxtaposed against photos of Ferguson and black families in the thirties, they mock the idea of advancement.
But Peck doesn’t confine Baldwin to the role of soothsayer. Anecdotes about Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and Lorraine Hansberry coax out the warmth in Jackson’s timbre; Hansberry’s unexpected death of cancer at thirty-three was a grievous blow to Baldwin, not least because he deeply admired her wit and defiance. Before his slow and by many accounts sincere conversion to racial equality, Robert Kennedy, Jr. was another callow Cold Warrior, with the bonus of three decades of sneering at and condescension towards any man or woman unfortunate enough not to bear the Kennedy name. During an infamous meeting with the attorney general, Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and other civil rights activists in 1963, Hansberry, quietly smoking cigarettes, cut through the cant: she wanted RFK’s brother the president to personally escort a black girl into a school in the Deep South. RFK demurred — it would be, in his words, “a meaningless moral gesture” (other accounts suggest Martin Luther King aide Clarence Benjamin Jones made the demand). The evening dissolved in acrimony. In gratitude, RFK asked J. Edgar Hoover to double the surveillance of Baldwin, whom a later report would deem a Commie and a “pervert.”
The forces of reaction, which the Kennedys had themselves represented in November 1960, murdered King, Malcolm X, and RFK himself. Baldwin outlived them all, and Peck includes many shots of that sad-beautiful face, an older man quick to laugh because the ironic spirit had touched his forehead with a tongue of fire. Eschewing attempts to mollify or assuage, I Am Not Your Negro does what few documentaries do: regard history as lived narrative by men and women for whom the Word is a series of beginnings, subject to revision inexorable and unjust.