Friday, February 24, 2017

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO A film by Raoul Peck

James Baldwin

A film by Raoul Peck
From the writings of James Baldwin
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson
93 minutes
Vintage Trade Paperback
Edited by Raoul Peck
IBSN 980-0-525-434696-6
eBook 978-0-525-434471-9

Review by Wendell Smith

I Am Not Your Negro is a challenge to our liberal certainties that we are not racist; it questions all our claims that we are “colorblind.” In answer to those questions I must admit that I have been tardy in looking at my own denials; I was in my 70’s before I began using “slave labor camp” rather than “plantation” to describe the birthplace of my mother’s maternal grandmother. Recently I had to listen to an otherwise right-thinking friend claim Andrew Jackson was despised by some of his right-thinking contemporaries because he did not treat his slaves well. Well, if this right-thinker of our times could still think that it was possible to treat slaves well, rather than only less sadistically, and, if (as that example and this film demonstrate) less sadistically is still a measure of virtue for some of us, we have a long way to evolve in our ethics and understanding.  I hope you too will find that I Am Not Your Negro facilitates that evolution.

If we are going to survive these times with our souls intact we must be willing to change our makeup. Our changes must be more than cosmetic and, as the soul is written on the visage, we will need mirrors to assess our progress. While I can't tell you where we will find those future mirrors, I can tell you where to find a current one that tells us where we are and why we must to begin to change. That mirror is the documentary I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, edited and directed by Raoul Peck, and narrated by Samuel Jackson.  

May I suggest that in our current reality, which has Orwell’s books flying off shelves, that Baldwin is the writer we should turn to. He tells us clearly what we need to know about ourselves and our betrayals.  No harm in cheering the soaring sales of Orwell but I don’t think we should be satisfied until we see, as evidence that we are willing to face the truths with which he confronts us,  James’ books taking wing along with George’s classics.

My one frustration watching I Am Not Your Negro was relieved with my discovery that it is also available in a Vintage Paperback. Often during the movie I would want to reach out and grab what Baldwin was saying only to have him continue with such eloquence that I immediately would say, “No, that's what I want to hold onto.” If I had known the paperback existed I would have relaxed knowing I could soon have all his words to savor at my leisure. One of the earliest of these passages that caught my attention was his praise for an early influence Orilla Miller, or as he referred to her, Bill:

I had been taken in hand by a young white
schoolteacher named Bill Miller,
a beautiful woman
very important to me.
She gave me books to read and talked to me
about the books,
and about the world:
about Ethiopia,
and Italy,
and the German Third Reich;
and took me to see plays and films, to which no one else would have dreamed of taking a 10-year-old boy

It is certainly because of Bill Miller,
who arrived in my terrifying life so soon,
thatI never really managed to hate white people.
Though, God knows,
I have often wished to murder more than one or two.

Therefore, I began to suspect that white people
did not act as they did because they were white
but for some other reason.

That passage in the film is an excerpt edited from chapter 1 of The Devil Finds Work. It is presented in the paperback as free verse, which I have copied here, because that form reveals the poetry that empowers Baldwin's prose.

Reading and rereading his words I am often brought up short and must stop to ponder them. Watching the film you are moved from one instinctive agreement: yes; to the next, oh, yes; to the next Oh! Yes! But, while with these yesses we accept the documentary’s thesis, the speed with which we are carried forward in the visual media is too rapid to permit the pleasure, which the book allows us, time for contemplation.

One of the things, which this documentary helps us, as whites, to do, is to admit that, when it comes to the reality of the African-American experience, we don't know squat and, therefore, we need a witness we can trust. Baldwin is that witness. I Am Not Your Negro is a narrative of Baldwin’s witness to the lives of his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King; and his reactions to their assassinations. He receives the news of each death in circumstances that any of us would consider comfortably normal even gentrified, however, while in I Am Not Your Negro his circumstances are unavoidably violated by the racism at the root of the assassinations, we may pretend that our circumstances are not.

I Am Not Your Negro takes up his observations of these three friends in the chronologic order of their deaths. While speaking of the first of these, Medgar Evers, he tells us about bearing witness; it is because of how he tells us, we will trust him. He is travelling in rural Mississippi with Evers:

I was terribly frightened,
but perhaps that "field trip" will help us define
what I mean by the word "witness."

I was to discover that the line which separates
a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed;
nevertheless, the line is real.

I was not, for example, a Black Muslim,
in the same way, though for different reasons,
that I never became a Black Panther:
because I did not believe that
all white people were devils,
and I did not want
young black people to believe that.
I was not a member of any Christian congregation
because I knew that they had not heard
and did not live by the commandment
"love one another as I love you,"
and I was not a member of the NAACP
because in the north, where I grew up
the NAACP was fatally entangled
with black class distinctions,
are allusions of the same,
which repelled a shoeshine boy like me.

Baldwin tells what he is going to tell us; he tells us; he tells us what he has told us and then he tells us again. Through all that repetition of such a tired story his words remain fresh; he has a genius so astonishing that you must conclude it is some cosmic consciousness trying to capture our attention through him and tell us the truth about ourselves. Sometimes this truth is expressed at some length:

For a very long time, America prospered:
this prosperity cost millions of people their lives.
Now, not even the people who are the most
spectacular recipients of the benefits of this
prosperity are able to endure these benefits:
they can neither understand them
nor do without them.
Above all, they cannot imagine the price paid
by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life,
and so they cannot afford to know
why the victims are revolting.

This is a formula for a nation's or a kingdom's

This is a formula for a nation's or a kingdom's 
decline for no kingdom can maintain 
itself by force alone.

Force does not work the way
it'itss advocates think in fact it does.
It does not, for example, revealed to the victim
the strength of the adversary.
On the contrary, it reveals the weakness,
even the panic of the adversary
and this revelation invests the victim with patience. 

and sometimes briefly:

The story of the Negro in America 
is the story of America.
It is not a pretty story.

One of the final pages of the book is dominated by a photograph of a black woman in a modest ankle-length flowered dress with long sleeves. She has a wedding ring on the relaxed fingers of her left hand. Her toes are pointing down like a dancer’s at the apex of her leap. The sleeves of the dress are pulled slightly above her wrists by a rope that is bunching the collar of her dress. The rope rises vertically to bleed off the edge of the photograph and, were it not for the way her neck is twisting her face to the left and downward, you could imagine it to be part of a theatrical device to create an illusion that she is in flight.  In the closing moment of the film this is one of a series lynchings for our witness; images, which go by too fast for the attention we can give to this one. That of course is the difference between the two media, a contrast that presents this question, "Aren't all of those extinguished lives equally deserving of our attention?" Under the photo Baldwin's narration serves as caption:

You cannot lynch me
And keep me in ghettos
without becoming something monstrous yourselves.
And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage.

You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you then you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced. (Italics mine.)

And then he goes on to his conclusion:

History is not the past.
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.
If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.

I attest to this:
the world is not white;
it never was white,
cannot be white.
White is a metaphor for power,
and that is simply a way of describing
Chase Manhattan Bank.
                      *   *   *
If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether it is able to ask that question. (The italics here are not mine)

“Not everything that is faced can be changed;

but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this excellent review of the writer who has most changed me as a person and writer. James Baldwin's writing never fails to stun and sometimes paralyze the reader with its infinitely sad and insightful beauty.