James Baldwin doc 'I Am Not Your Negro' highlights how little progress has been made in the last 50 years

The more things change

James Baldwin doc 'I Am Not Your Negro' highlights how little progress has been made in the last 50 years
Photo by Dan Budnick
I Am Not Your Negro, Opens Friday, March 10, at Enzian Theater, 5 stars

The first thing to know about I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary about writer and civil rights figure James Baldwin, is that the people who would most benefit from seeing it aren't going to see it. The film analyzes the experience of black Americans living as second-class citizens in a country ostensibly founded on principles of liberty and equality under the law. And while it's already a hit as far as "liberal snowflakes" are concerned, it's unlikely to find an audience with anyone who uses the phrase "all lives matter" sincerely or thinks that "social justice warrior" is an insult. More's the pity, but it's their loss.

Peck's documentary pulls heavily from 30 pages of notes for an unfinished book that Baldwin left behind when he died in 1987. Remember This House, the working title for that book, was intended to be a look at the story of racism in America told through the deaths of three civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. "I want these lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did," writes Baldwin. But Peck's documentary does little to illuminate the lives of those men, in favor of giving a peek at the soul of Baldwin himself.

As a queer, black intellectual in post-World War II America, James Baldwin took a good long look at the country he lived in and noped on off to France in the late '40s, but returned to New York City just as the civil rights movement was starting to pick up steam. In I Am Not Your Negro, his words – read by Samuel L. Jackson in a voice-over performance that lacks so much of that actor's usual bombast as to make his voice nearly unrecognizable – identify a photo of Dorothy Counts, a 14-year-old black girl walking to school in North Carolina, as the impetus for his return to his native country. But while Baldwin focuses on the strength in Counts' face, it's impossible for a modern audience to focus on anything but the sea of jeering, spitting white faces that surround her. That kind of overt racial hatred, seen through today's lens, is jarring – not for its existence, as we're all reminded on a nearly daily basis that racism is still as American as apple pie – but for its overtness.

Peck seems to make the case, using Baldwin's words, that the '50s and '60s – despite that overt racism that we find so gauche now – was the last time we, as a nation, actually made progress on that front, in part because that hatred was so out in the open. Footage of the Birmingham campaign and the 1965 Watts riots are echoed in footage of the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri. The only significant difference is that the police wear more body armor now. One of the most telling moments in the film comes from footage from an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, when Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss attempts to discredit Baldwin's focus on race with some "all lives matter"-style obfuscation. Baldwin, always an eloquent extemporaneous speaker, takes his argument down, but Weiss' perspective persists to this day, resurrected every time a Facebook acquaintance complains about "reverse racism."

We may no longer have laughing white mobs spitting on black girls who just want to walk to school. We may no longer have divided bus seating or separate water fountains. But we still live in a country where violence – physical, psychological, economic – against black bodies is seen as a matter of course in day-to-day life. And unfortunately, the prevailing course of action is to pretend that these things don't happen, or that they only happen to those who deserve it, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. As Baldwin says near the end of I Am Not Your Negro, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

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