James Baldwin was perhaps the most prominent African-American intellectual of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most unusual. Openly gay when few people were, he spent most of his life living abroad, particularly France. He wrote passionately in a variety of idioms — plays, essays (The Fire Next Time is necessary reading), novels (the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It On The Mountain) and poems. It was a social critic of race and sexuality, though, that he was distinguished for, in part because — unlike Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers — he was not outwardly and actively political, but more an observer and commentator. He also didn’t feel that all white people were bad, as many black activists of his day professed.
After the assassinations of Malcolm, Martin and Medgar, though, Baldwin proposed to his editor a book-length analysis of how those very different men represented key elements of black experience. Baldwin got as far as a 30 page outline before he abandoned it; he died in 1987, the project never completely.
But now, it sort of has been completed. Filmmaker Raoul Peck has assembled archive footage of Baldwin and the men he knew, accumulated letters and the outline and cast Samuel L. Jackson to read them as Baldwin, and structured a masterful and shatteringly important film out of all of it — one that is as much about Baldwin himself as Malcolm, Martin and Medgar. I Am Not Your Negro, which has opened at the Magnolia Theatre (just as Black History Month begins), is a fascinating and thought-provoking film, and a testament to a time and person who valued thinking more than partisan name-calling.
The profundity of the film is Peck’s wisdom in allowing Baldwin’s words to do most of the heavy lifting. In an age of fake news, alternative facts, infantile presidential tweets and the cacophony of contemporary punditry, Baldwin’s writing was reasoned, measured, informed … and powerful. He dissects with a surgeon’s skill the influences in micronic parsing of these heroes of the civil rights era. And he leads us along unexpected paths. When, in 1968, Robert Kennedy predicted that the U.S. might have a black president in 40 years (significantly, Barack Obama was elected in 2008), Baldwin doesn’t stand by as a cheerleader rah-rahing the hopefulness, but expresses skepticism — as if the achievement wasn’t one earned, but a payment by whites to assuage their own guilt. (The fact Obama was often vilified with thinly-veiled racism and was succeeded by a race-baiting buffoon lends credence to his analysis.)
But rather than coming off as heady and dispassionate, I Am Not Your Negro is a bold and emotionally wrenching film, a plea for — if not civility — then at least rigor in our thought. It’s as powerful in its revelations about race as Cititizenfour was about U.S. intelligence. Don’t miss it. (Now playing at the Magnolia.)
You might also want to catch 13th, a Netflix original that, like Negro, is one of this year’s nominees for the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) takes a very different approach that Peck, compiling comments from nearly 40 politicians, activists and pundits (among them conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, as well as more liberal voices), who weigh in on race politics in the past 50 years and beyond.
DuVernay’s premise is that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively outlawed legal slavery, left a loophole that allowed the government to use the legal system to imprison and subjugate black Americans and achieve virtually the same results. (Black makes make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population, and account for about 40 percent of the more than 2 million incarcerated today.) It’s a staggering statistic and a compelling theory, for which there is substantial support … including from Gingrich himself, who says the war on drugs (punishing crack possession 10 times worse than powder cocaine) was a disaster for the the African-American community. It’s more of a hot-button style of filmmaking (crowded with data, employing rap music and personal histories to emphasize its impact) than the more contemplative I Am Not Your Negro, but there’s no denying its power. (Available for streaming on Netflix.)