The images out of Charlottesville are shocking, but not surprising. The shock is more physiological than anything, a feeling of revulsion and rage that terrifies and stuns in equal measure, but surprise is a feeling too naïve to be as visceral as this: Virginia, 1619; Virginia, 2017. America’s moral conscience has long harbored an uneasy tension between its libertarian values and the reality of that liberty’s uneven distribution, unease manifest in historical cycles of progress and backlash—from slavery to emancipation, Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement to mass incarceration. What emerges from America’s past is a pattern of violence, repression, and repetition, dialectically counterbalanced by the continued pursuit of justice.
In his book, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, historian Nikhil Pal Singh argues that this dissensus is constitutive of American identity:
If whiteness became the privileged grounding and metaphor for the empty abstraction of U.S. citizenship, blackness presented an apparent contradiction and a fixed limit against which it was enacted and staged, beginning with the consolidation of a slave regime based on African origins and the codification of racial rules of descent. While other racialized groups have since been similarly subordinated, and in the case of American Indians violently expelled from the nation’s borders, blacks presented the anomaly of an exclusion that was at once foundational to and located within the polity. […] Lurking within the original conceptions of American freedom, providing the underlying logic of the brutal civil war of national unification, unsettling the fragile legitimacy of the U.S. defense of the free world after World War II, and inhabiting contemporary justifications for dismantling the welfare-state is the question of the status of black existence: the problem of race in the United States.1
This history isn’t over. So often lost in the debate over America’s ancestry is the banality of racism, its systemic and thereby naturalized presence. The confusion of the contemporary media landscape has done more than fracture the demos along racial and political lines; America has begun to mirror the increasingly myopic, ever dystopic spectacle of 21st-century media—overwhelmed, fatigued, paranoid, anxious. And however legitimate these worries might be, the engine that produces them is not innocent: the culture industry is in the business of selling foment and palliatives. Rare is a healthy dose of critique.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is, therefore, refreshing. Director Raoul Peck takes the unfinished manuscript of James Baldwin’s Remember This House and transforms it into a documentary somewhere between history and mythology. Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin’s incisive observations on the lives and murders of three giants of the Civil Rights Movement—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—but his portraits are invariably autobiographical, colored with details and intimacies that betray the human behind the hero. Moreover, these leaders are as complex and conflicting as the historical moment they occupied; to think of this history as homogenous, unified, and directed would be to deny the monumental feat of their coalition, advocacy, and work.
No less deeply considered is Baldwin himself. Baldwin knew himself to be an intense and independent thinker, possessed of the rare quality of seeing the world for himself. Beholden to none of the dominant ideological molds of his time, his thinking cuts unequivocally to lucid insight and invective critique with concern only for the justice of his observations—their truth, their urgency. Archival footage of Baldwin giving interviews and lectures supplements the narration, presenting the cool, composed public intellectual in relief against the rage and grief of the person. His words resonate not just for their poise and precision, but for their love:
A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.2
If the narcissism of white supremacy is the mark of anxiety, insecurity, guilt, and weakness—not an inborn condition but a latent desire projected onto the racial Other—then the titular rejection I Am Not Your Negro negates without alternative. It is simply a matter of fact, a reality, one that defies the established order of white supremacy as its modus operandi. Baldwin did not seek to mollify; he sought to humanize. And he hoped that such an act of love would rebuff the hatred that numbed the American soul—so that we might feel pain and, thereby, begin to heal.
Following Baldwin’s writing, the film traces a loose history of the Civil Rights Movement, featuring cameo appearances from 1960s icons, but as a documentarian, Raoul Peck is hardly concerned with hagiography. To the contrary, the mythology of the movement is troubled and repurposed. Baldwin the author and Peck the auteur seem to co-pilot through a collage of different artifacts and impressions, each mobilized in the service of a larger critique.
Of particular interest is the frequent cannibalization of Hollywood films, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) or The Defiant Ones (1958), which Baldwin dissects as manifestations of white America’s racial fantasy. Indeed, the American cinematic tradition was mired in white projection from its earliest features, most infamously, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose innovative formal techniques were implemented in the service of constructing a wildly distorted vision of the postwar South. In the same breath, I Am Not Your Negro swerves to contemporary footage of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of Michael Brown sparked protest and resulted in the outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, a century of media representations are rearranged and decoded, put into conversation with the conflicting biographical and ideological representations of Civil Rights, and ultimately composed into a piece of cinema united by theme yet discordant in form.
I Am Not Your Negro is therefore not history for history’s sake but history for the future. In identifying and sustaining parallels in American history and representation, the film invites reflection about how much and how little has been accomplished, and why American history seems prone to unsurprising swerves. Baldwin’s thought is present in echoes—consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight as descendants of Baldwin’s—but his frankness remains curative in an age of alt-right radicalism and alternative facts:
What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.
To return to The Birth of a Nation and racism’s pernicious history in film: if what Baldwin suggests—that American racism comes from power’s fear of losing power—then those mocked and maligned onscreen hold their own sway, able to influence culture as mere antipode and caricature, but this presence is nonetheless real and fearfully powerful. Consider the response of black audiences to Griffith’s film:
Too late to affect the content of The Birth of a Nation or any other movie, the growing racial consciousness at least provided the platform to challenge the monopoly that white filmmakers enjoyed. Even before the shock of the film’s release there were stories of all-black film companies and their occasional productions. No longer would blacks be silent while white men in black masks paraded across the movie screens. Their newspapers thenceforward raged whenever white moviemakers flirted with racism. Impatient intellectuals urged protest, suggested forming Negro film companies, went against the liberal tide and demanded censorship of racial slanders. Their outrage fused with that of the young NAACP, which began a half-century career of lobbying in Hollywood studios.3
More than a century later, Peck’s work is the obvious child and benefactor of these early activists. History’s return should not surprise us—but perhaps it shouldn’t wholly discourage us. As Baldwin put it, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”
1 Singh, Nikhil Pal, “Rethinking Race and Nation,” Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 22.
2 Baldwin, James, “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” The New Yorker, 1962.
3 Cripps, Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942, London: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 43.