With voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson.
The movie opens with an interview on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 which was a period in American television that Johnny Carson, talk show host of the Tonight Show, reigned supreme. Dick Cavett took on Johnny Carson as an alternative talk show host, and interviewed a slightly more intellectual set of guests. It is in this context that Baldwin appears on his show. James Baldwin speaks, in full command of his language, his ideas, his persona as he describes the condition of black men in America. Besides the Cavett show interviews, there are other conversations and a chilling debate at Cambridge University where he receives a standing ovation– every member of the audience white, educated, privileged, moved by his rhetorical skill and fervor.
Raoul Peck uses the idea of Baldwin’s last would be book, a memoir about his relationship with three great black leaders brought down by assassination– Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The film shows a brief summary of each man’s significance to the civil rights movement. These scenes are stitched together with more contemporary scenes, from Ferguson, genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seamlessly segue from the assassination of three major leaders of the movement in the 1960s to the continuing slaughter of young black men in the present.
The Cavett interview took place in the mid 1960s, sometime between Evers’ and Malcolm’s murders. I felt the sorrow and tasted the outrage of an intelligent writer, witness to so much death at the hands of bigots. We watch them full of hatred as they spit on a young black girl attempting to go to school. There are also images of lynched black men, and scenes of the police beating men senseless, including the sickening footage in Los Angeles of Rodney King which launched riots in Los Angeles in 1991 that resulted in dozens of deaths.
Baldwin explains why he left the United States in 1948; he wanted to live free in Paris and be safe from the vicious eyes of whites who live separate from blacks and don’t understand them at all.When he returns during the Civil Rights movement to pay his dues, his voice has a clarity and urgency touched with literary brilliance. Here is a man who loved words and used them perfectly to decry the inglorious history of the Untied States, which has no place for blacks.
Movie clips demonstrate this. I had never seen Joan Crawford dance in that movie from the early 1930s (Dancing Lady), or the murder mystery where a terrified janitor is wrongly accused of murder. I was familiar with Stepin Fetchit, and John Wayne’s relentless pursuit of Indians in John Ford movies, movies where the Indians might easily stand in for the black race. We watch clips of Sidney Poitier, Doris Day, Ray Charles. Baldwin elaborates the contrast between the white vision of purity and happiness, and their notion of black beasts prowling on their white women.
Watching I Am Not Your Negro made me wonder if our nation can make any progress in race relations until there is a commission like the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa that reckoned with the sordid history of apartheid. It is important that we acknowledge the racism upon which our country is founded. In the wake of recent killings– Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, it feels as if everything Baldwin is saying on the Dick Cavett show in 1965 still holds true today, more than 50 years later. He takes pains to say that he is not a Christian, or a Muslim, or a member of the NAACP. He is a witness to the ugly hatred that has killed so many, and continues to kill. Peck’s movie made me feel the sorrow of Baldwin afresh today.