Alan: First off, I want to say that buying your ticket to this extraordinary movie - not only a biography of James Baldwin but a biography of America - is an emotional experience.
For when you reach the ticket booth you will have to say "I am not your negro" and, to a greater or lesser extent, you will be jolted.
Or, you will find some way to dodge the words "I am not your negro" and the dodge itself will jolt you.
The movie is so good - so richly packed on so many levels - that I will not cover every topic begging attention so you can be done with my review, learn where "Not Your Negro" is "playing at a theater near you," and be on your way.
My foremost "takeaway" from "Negro" (the Spanish word for "black") is that white people are distracted by our passion for false ideals and, in consequence, we seldom mature.
And because we don't mature, we never admit that "who we are in our private lives" has any real relationship with the people we pretend to be in public. The gap is too big to be confronted, much less bridged.
At bottom, "Not Your Negro" is about Reality and Baldwin rightly focuses T.S. Eliot's observation that "Humankind cannot bear much reality."
Even so, the unanswered challenge for full-spectrum, multi-racial America is "How do we become real?" How do we look honestly into our past, our present and our souls in order to grasp our national rapaciousness -- indeed, the literal rape -- that has inserted white genes into "the black population," and, far less frequently, black genes into "the white population."
Because we white people don't let enough reality past our idealistic "screens" to "get in touch" with our common human taproot, we flit about, becoming suckers for the superficial, a tawdry tendency long revealed by television "game shows," and now by "reality TV."
The very phrase "Reality TV" is almost pathognomic for what's gone wrong, the banality of neverending acquisitiveness, now apotheosized in the sad, sorry life of Donald Trump, "the man in the high tower," walled off by brick, mortar and a neverending phalanx of in-your-face white supremacists.
"Donald Trump's Sad, Lonely Life," By David Brooks. (Superb Summary Of A Lost Soul)
"Dumbed down whites" have come to believe that "life is only real when televised," an eldritch idea that has flooded political and social life so that what little progress we've made is now "ripe" for total (and totalitarian) re-negotiation.
Soul-less white supremacists rule The West Wing with the same race-baiting ruthlessness as Hitler's brown shirts.
Even so, our predominantly white press cannot bring itself to "call a spade a spade," or, in this instance, a white supremacist a white supremacist. At bedrock, "we" have been bamboozled into accepting the linguistic white-washing that uses the phrase "alt-right" to obscure the fetid impulse that informs these twisted simulacra of human beings.
And in our political correctness, we cannot call them all the other things they are.
Assholes. (Complete assholes.)
And they are not only at the gates.
They are inside the gates.
And they are inside the gates because that's where they grew up.
They were formed here. They were made in America's image - at least in the shadow image that is increasingly displacing what we believed to be our "real" image.
They are, perhaps, what white people in America have always been.
Eager for designated n'er-do-wells to wither.
And if they die, well... social Darwinism is "the way of the world" (even if Darwin himself was a God-damned atheist now burning in The Unquenchable Lake Of Fire).
Perhaps our current extremity --- the result of the same white "Christians" who are disproportionately responsible for our false idealism --- is but a one-time tsunami, and when the waters recede we will rebuild as quickly as the people of Fukushima.
Even so - even if we dodge the bullet that white Christians have ultimately aimed at their own head - it is enduringly true that we live pervasive public lies, pretending we are exceptional people, when - in the main - we are paranoid barbarians, awash in firearms and eager to dismantle the tentative half-step we recently took in the direction of universal healthcare.
And so our streets are mostly mean, our social capital spent on "bowling alone" and other pyrrhic victories of chest-thumping rugged individualism.
I am now in my 70th year and when, as a 20 year old, I first lived among Mexican peasants, I quickly realized that latinos (like other dark-skinned people) seem to understand, from birth, that their mission in life, indeed The Mission of Life, is to celebrate. On the other hand, the white culture in which I was raised, looked on celebration as an occasional afterthought to the real mission of Life which was ... well... work.
This morning (after writing the previous passage) I heard Oddisee's Amir Muhammed, a Sudanese American sing: "We celebrate in front of people like they weren't around."
Oddisee's "The Iceberg" Has A Trove Of Stories Beneath Its Surface
This gradgrind determination to make our lives miserable through overwork (not to mention our enforced participation in the community-destroying banality of most capitalist aspiration) is bizarre beyond imagining.
I recall Muhammed Ali's line: "Man, white people are REALLY smart... But boy are they crazy!" (I quote from memory.)
Toss all these tendencies "in the hopper" and what emerges is an emblematic fact: white people do not make music on the streets.
Oh sure, we have parades. We even have a few carnivals.
But they are shows - long prepared and painstakingly rehearsed.
Completely divorced from our private lives, white America's public face reveals these telltale traits:
1.) White people don't sing out loud. (Not long ago, I was at my bank on an unusually slow day. When I looked up from the "check preparation" counter, I noticed that all six tellers were smiling at me. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" I asked. And head teller Rachel replied. "We were just saying to one another that nobody whistles out loud anymore. Except you. And it's very nice.")
2.) White people don't shake our booties in public.
3.) We certainly don't leap about.
4.) And anything like prancing is left to Rudolf. ("Not Your Negro" contains a soaring segment in which black people dance on the street with an abandon white people reserve for "lights out" intimacy.)
And so we live in jejune bubbles, trying to suck nourishment from the teats of formative myths that are not even healthy.
Cowboys and Indians.
Cops and Robbers.
Believers and Infidels.
Black Hats and White Hats.
Behind it all lies one and another binary black-and-white eruption from the original Manichaean corruption of Christianity.
I will conclude by saying that if Baldwin were looking over my shoulder, he might recognize nothing of himself in what I've written.
Before I risk taking you so far astray that Orpheus himself must march into hell to fetch you back, go see this remarkable movie.
Let me know if it doesn't stay with you.
CAPTURING JAMES BALDWIN’S LEGACY ONSCREEN
With “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck seems to be stepping in to make the movie that Baldwin couldn’t.
The movie moves, and James Baldwin moves in it. Sometimes he looks like a graceful queen, as he sits, poised, his back erect with grand indulgence or tolerance or love. His expressive hands cut through the air during this or that interview, speaking a wordless language of their own, as the former boy preacher from Harlem, small, dark, and compact, talks and talks about race, sounding like no one else on earth. It’s Baldwin’s voice—his luminescent words describing and analyzing dark matters—that ties together Raoul Peck’s latest film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is about many things, including the writer’s relationship to racial politics and the fantastic yet undermining power of the cinema’s racially defined images. One of the chief pleasures of the movie is watching Baldwin, who died in 1987, appear on talk shows and in public forums: he had an extraordinary physical presence, of a piece with his singular mind. We watch him because he saw us, wanted to see us.
Baldwin’s prescient, pre-African-American-studies insights about the construct and the reality of whiteness are among many ideas that Peck zeroes in on in his swift-moving, multilayered, and appreciative film. (It’s a wonderful introduction to Baldwin, if you’ve never read him.) “I Am Not Your Negro” is dominated by words, and by its director’s interest in how language can support or contradict what we see. The script—which is culled primarily from Baldwin’s writing and read by Samuel L. Jackson, without his usual bombast—outstrips Peck’s images, in depth, mystery, and knowingness, but that is often a problem with sensational writing, especially if it wasn’t written specifically for the screen. Our ear fixes on the sentences, and we don’t allow the images to tell the story. But what if the words are the story?
“I Am Not Your Negro” more or less begins with the question of home. It’s 1968. Baldwin is on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett is trying to ask him if we should feel equal measures of hope and despair about race relations in America. As Cavett stumbles over how to phrase the question, Baldwin smiles his magnificent smile and says that, to tell the truth, he doesn’t have much hope. His point is: What’s going to happen to this country if it can’t cope with the language of race, let alone race itself? Being correct doesn’t inspire art, or the tension that contributes to the making of art. Then, as a blues tune plays, Peck, rather predictably, cuts to still photographs of recent demonstrations: blood and rage in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere. He is, appropriately, showing what has become of race relations in this country, but the result feels banal, a coda to an unfinishable story.
Cut to a black screen, then a typewritten message—an unpublished letter from Baldwin to his literary agent, Jay Acton. (Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s younger sister and his executor, gave Peck unprecedented access to her brother’s work.) It’s the summer of 1979, and Baldwin is working on a book that he does not want to write but knows he must write. Titled “Remember This House,” it will tell the story of America through the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, all of whom were Baldwin’s friends, and whom he wrote about in his underrated 1972 book, “No Name in the Street.” (One wonders why he chose to revisit the material—or why it wouldn’t leave him alone.) As Peck shows us elevated train tracks in what appears to be a deserted city, Jackson reads the letter, which describes the work to come: “I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do, what you will find, or what you find will do to you.” (The scene reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s heart-stopping 1977 film, “News from Home,” which shows tranquil shots of an emptied-out New York as the director reads letters from her mother, who is back home in Belgium.)
Baldwin, who moved to France in 1948, at the age of twenty-four, tells Acton how he knew when it was time for him to return home, a journey that led to his becoming friends with King and the other leaders: It was 1957, and he was in Paris. He saw, on the front page of a newspaper, a photograph of Dorothy Counts, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a professor of theology and philosophy and the first black student admitted to Harry Harding High School, in Charlotte, under the Pearsall Plan to Save Our Schools. Instituted in 1956, the Pearsall Plan was North Carolina’s attempt to integrate public schools in a “moderate” way, after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, in 1954. For many blacks, its approach was just more of that Faulkner jazz about going “slow,” which Baldwin took apart in his 1956 essay “Faulkner and Desegregation”:
When Faulkner speaks . . . of “the middle of the road,” he is simply speaking of the hope—which was always unrealistic and is now all but smashed—that the white southerner, with no coercion from the rest of the nation, will lift himself above his ancient, crippling bitterness and refuse to add to his already intolerable burden of blood-guiltiness. But this hope would seem to be absolutely dependent on a social and psychological stasis which simply does not exist.
Counts was harassed and stoned, and she withdrew from the school after four days. “Spit was hanging from the hem of Dorothy’s dress,” Baldwin reports a witness telling him. He writes to Acton, “Some one of us should have been there with her.” Baldwin knew that he had to go to the South in order to understand not only what he came from—his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, was born in Maryland—but also those who could no longer allow themselves to be spat on, even if it meant risking death: the “niggers” who had done so much to define whiteness. (Some of the power of “I Am Not Your Negro” lies in the view it allows us of King, Malcolm, and Evers. It’s incredible and horrifying to see them again, first moving and speaking in the real spaces of their lives, and then dead—martyrs to what use and what end? History ate those men while they were alive and continues to chew over their bones in death.)
But first, after nine years away, Baldwin went to New York, which, he confessed to Acton, he hadn’t missed until he was back in Harlem. There, surrounded by the music, the conversation, and the style of the world that had given him so much and taken so much, he began to feel a different kind of exile, the way all returned expatriates do: he was at home, but he was no longer sure what home was.
At this juncture, Peck introduces a theme that was a steady yet disconcerting force in Baldwin’s young life: movies. Moviegoing began as a family affair; Baldwin shared its pleasures with his mother or an aunt. (Baldwin’s stepfather, a street preacher and a factory worker, forbade secular music in the house; presumably he considered movies similarly evil.) Then, when Baldwin was ten, he was taken up by a white schoolteacher, Orilla Miller—her students called her Bill—who, as he writes in his late masterpiece “The Devil Finds Work” (1976), which Peck draws on for the film-related segments of the movie, introduced the burgeoning artist to politics and aesthetics:
She gave me books to read and talked to me about the books, and about the world . . . and took me to see plays and films, plays and films to which no one else would have dreamed of taking a ten-year-old boy. I loved her, of course, and absolutely. . . . It is certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people.
At the movies, the seven-year-old Baldwin saw Joan Crawford and fell in love. (Later, at a grocery store, he saw a black woman who resembled Crawford and almost followed her home.) At ten, Baldwin was transfixed by the “tense intelligence” in Bette Davis’s forehead and amazed by her “pop-eyes,” which resembled his own and his mother’s. Plus, “when she moved, she moved just like a nigger.” Then, there were all those cowboys-and-Indians flicks, and it took the young Baldwin some time to realize that by rooting for the good guys—the white guys—he was rooting against himself.
“The Devil Finds Work” disappointed some of Baldwin’s readers. The black writer and editor Orde Coombs deemed it more than a failure in his Times review: it was evidence of how the mighty Baldwin had fallen.
A decade ago, as an undergraduate, my colleagues and I spent hours poring over the works of James Baldwin. He seemed so sure-footed then, so certain in his vision of this country, that his lacerating words were like balm to the black students who were on a whirligig in search of their identities. . . . Now Baldwin has published a long essay . . . but the event does not call for rejoicing. In fact it brings forth not a little pain, for this work teems with a passion that is all reflex, and an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical. It is as if Baldwin were wound up and then let loose to attack the hypocritical core of this nation. And to what avail? None that I can see, for although the book purports to be an examination of the way American films distort reality, its eclecticism is so pervasive that all we are left with are peregrinations of the mind and ideas that jump around and contradict each other.
Coombs’s frustration is, by necessity, personal. For years, Baldwin had purposefully styled himself as a representative of others, more of a “we” than an “I.” But in “The Devil Finds Work” he tried something different: an amalgamation of essay, criticism, memoir, and plain old talk that presages so many of the delicious unclassifiable works by such subsequent writers as Renata Adler, John Keene, Sarah Manguso, Leslie Jamison, and Maggie Nelson.
In the book—which is divided into three parts, moving from his experience of Hollywood films to his work as a screenwriter in Hollywood to a more global take on blacks in movies—Baldwin cuts repeatedly from tenderness and hope, inspired by his beloved teacher Bill, to fierce rhetoric and a despair that centers on a question of faith: how can we believe in America’s most powerful product if its vision misshapes or betrays some of its citizens? But it is the jumpiness and the contradictions of Baldwin’s text that play so well in Peck’s movie: film, too, often jumps around and contradicts itself—or reality.
One has the sense, in the sections of “I Am Not Your Negro” that are devoted to Baldwin’s relationship to film, that Peck is stepping in to make the film that Baldwin couldn’t make. From the beginning of his career, Baldwin longed to make movies. In the introduction to his 1955 landmark collection, “Notes of a Native Son,” he wrote, “About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified.” To my knowledge, Baldwin never satisfied that desire (morbid, perhaps, because he knew of the herculean effort that goes into getting any movie made), but he never stopped yearning to be a filmmaker. Like a number of other significant twentieth-century authors—James Agee, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, and his friend Norman Mailer—he knew that the page was not enough in the modern world; cinema was a powerful medium with many more “readers.” What would his life as an artist have been like, and what would American cinema be like now, had it opened itself up to him?
Baldwin was drawn to Ingmar Bergman’s films, because they were the work of a feeling thinker who mined his past—especially his troubled relationship with his authoritarian pastor father. In a 1960 Esquire profile of Bergman, Baldwin describes how, after an interview with the filmmaker, he got into his car and imagined a movie he might make about his own past. But Baldwin had neither Bergman’s studio support nor his skin color. (We still live in a world where it’s hard to cast black actors in mainstream films, because distributors say they can’t sell movies with black actors overseas, and no one in Hollywood is embarrassed to admit this.)
Some Baldwin film projects: In 1955, Baldwin and his close friend the editor Sol Stein—who put together “Notes of a Native Son”—adapted his essay “Equal in Paris” for television. (The script was never produced, but it was included, in 2004, in “Native Sons,” a helpful book that covers Baldwin’s early days as a writer.) After that, Baldwin published what I consider a kind of screenplay: the text for Richard Avedon’s 1964 book of civil-rights-themed photographs, “Nothing Personal.” Baldwin and Avedon had worked together on their high-school newspaper and stayed in touch. The text begins with a scene drawn from the image world:
I used to distract myself, some mornings before I got out of bed, by pressing the television remote control gadget from one channel to another. This may be the only way to watch TV. I certainly saw some remarkable sights. Blondes and brunettes and possibly redheads—my screen was colorless—washing their hair, relentlessly smiling, teeth gleaming like the grillwork of automobiles, breasts firmly, chillingly encased—packaged, as it were—and brilliantly uplifted, forever, all sagging corrected, forever, all middle-aged bulge defeated, eyes as sensuous and mysterious as jelly beans.
Baldwin was able to create images while describing them. This can be a hazard when you’re working on a commercial movie script: producers want a showcase for stars, not analysis through imagery. I’m sure that Baldwin’s method didn’t help “One Day, When I Was Lost,” his unmade 1972 film adaptation of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Recalling the experience, Baldwin wrote, in “No Name on the Street,” “This was a difficult assignment, since I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable, from love. (The Hollywood gig did not work out because I did not wish to be a party to a second assassination. . . .)” In “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin describes how his collaborators tried to reduce his complex subject—the story of Malcolm X and the black-male fraternity he inspired—to a Hollywood formula, a kind of buddy road movie. He eventually walked away from the project, and twenty years later the subject was still considered so difficult to represent on film that Spike Lee had to fight for the right to do so: a white director, Norman Jewison, was originally chosen for the project. (Lee incorporated elements of Baldwin’s script in his 1992 movie, “Malcolm X,” but also did what Baldwin tried to avoid, stressing the buddy-film aspects of the story, at least in the beginning.)
Had Peck made his film longer—and he should have—he could have delved further into the ways that other black artists, like Lee, tend to put their own fingerprints on Baldwin. Because he has remained such a star in the firmament of black arts and letters, there is almost no way for an admirer not to vie with his legend. (Also little explored, here or elsewhere, is the extent to which King and Malcolm X tried to compete with his exquisite language: brilliant rhetoricians are always suspicious of other brilliant rhetoricians.) Peck himself doesn’t compete with Baldwin—he loves him in a much less complicated way than Baldwin loved his own artistic fathers, such as Richard Wright. But that isn’t always a good thing: reverence is less sexy than an Oedipal grudge.
As we listen to Baldwin’s thoughts on the country’s relationship to the images it has produced—images that tell us so much about how whiteness views itself—we watch Peck’s beautifully chosen and edited clips of the young Joan Crawford and Sidney Poitier (Alexandra Strauss, the film’s editor, has done a fine job) with a double consciousness: there’s what we see and there’s what Baldwin says about what he sees. Especially riveting is Baldwin’s discussion of Poitier in “The Defiant Ones,” a film that divided black and white audiences when it was released, in 1958. In “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier plays an escaped black convict who is handcuffed to a racist white convict (Tony Curtis). Gradually, the two become friends, of a sort, and toward the end of the film Poitier’s character sacrifices his own freedom to help Curtis’s character. In “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin points out that black audiences wanted Poitier’s character to abandon his former tormentor, while white audiences thought that his loyalty was laudable.
Although Baldwin dealt with whiteness in many ways, among them his phenomenal 1961 Esquire piece about Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” he never directly addressed the anguished ties between blacks and whites in his own life. Perhaps this was out of fear of proving Eldridge Cleaver’s claim, in “Soul on Ice,” that Baldwin was essentially a faggot to the white man, because of the circles he moved in. His first experience of kindness, outside his family, was with his white teacher Bill. Later, at DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, where some white boys mocked his teen-age evangelism, there were others, such as Avedon and the writer Emile Capouya, who defended him. Avedon once told me that, when they were in school, Baldwin had come to visit him at home and been instructed by the doorman to use the back entrance. When Avedon’s mother let him in and asked why he hadn’t come to the front door, Baldwin told her that this was where “the man” had sent him. Mrs. Avedon rang for the doorman and lambasted him.
It was Capouya who pushed Baldwin to leave the church, since he no longer believed in it. In “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin recalls his friend’s challenge:
To stay in the church merely because I was afraid of leaving it was unutterably far beneath me, and too despicable a cowardice for him to support in any friend of his. Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o’clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church—the point, precisely, of the challenge. If I were not on the steps of the library (in the bookshelves of which so much of my trouble had begun!) then he would be ashamed of me and never speak to me again, and I would be ashamed of myself. . . . That was how I left the church.
By leaving the church and letting white friends love him, Baldwin separated himself from his stepfather (the only father he had) and gained access to a kind of power that his stepfather would never know. He found other fathers. In his twenties, he began to write for Sol Levitas, at The New Leader; Randall Jarrell, at The Nation; and Philip Rahv, at The Partisan Review: white publications headed by white men. In the introduction to his collection “The Price of the Ticket,” which was published in 1985—two years before his death, at the age of sixty-four—Baldwin recalls that time:
I had been to two black newspapers before I met these people and had simply been laughed out of the office: I was a shoeshine boy who had never been to college. I don’t blame these people, God knows that I was an unlikely cub reporter: yet, I still remember how deeply I was hurt. . . . Therefore, though it may have cost [Sol] Levitas nothing to hurl a book at a black boy to see if he could read it and be articulate concerning what he had read, I took it as a vote of confidence and swore that I would give him my very best shot. And I loved him—the old man, as I sometimes called him (to his face) and I think—I know—that he was proud of me, and that he loved me, too.
Imagine if those words were read over the clip we see at the end of “I Am Not Your Negro,” from a 1963 conversation with the black psychologist Kenneth Clark. In it, Baldwin smokes his ever-present Bette Davis cigarette and takes America to task for its wrongs and its failures. What if Baldwin had stopped generalizing about the black condition and gone deeper into the complications of black and white love? Isn’t that one of the terrible fears this country was built on? The fear that white servants and black slaves might love and procreate and eventually outnumber and overpower their masters? But I can see now that I am trying to produce my own movie. That’s the problem with love: you always want to remake it in your own image. ♦