My countryman is my enemy.
Intersectionality – noun – the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender, sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual (dictionary.com)
James Baldwin was a queer black man. He was a black man. And he was gay. He had sex with men. But, you’d never guess it from Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. The closest Peck comes to acknowledging that James Baldwin was a homosexual is in a block of text about Peck’s FBI CoIntel files stating “he may be a homosexual.” Otherwise, Peck includes a photo of James Baldwin holding three girls as if they were his daughters, and talking about his (metaphorical) children on The Dick Cavett Show. Outside the slightly queer comments about Malcolm X’s long arms caressing the ankles of his long legs as he leaned forward, or talking about the taboo of men kissing in America, Raoul Peck has turned James Baldwin into a heterosexual.
At my screening of Moonlight, we had a post-film panel discussing the film and its themes. One of the speakers was a gay black man who commented that he had to compartmentalize his homosexuality and his blackness. He could be a gay man, or a black man, but rarely a gay black man. That statement is illustrated and underlined here. It’s not just through the absence of James Baldwin’s queer writings or speeches that Peck heteronormalizes Baldwin. It’s also through his choice of narrator. Samuel L. Jackson has a deep authoritative baritone. Jackson’s normal voice resonates with a masculine earnestness that shakes people to the core. For much of America, Samuel L has become a voice of black America. When resurrecting Baldwin’s words from the grave, Jackson slows down his cadence and croaks out his reading as if he’s exhausted or dead. This is not James Baldwin. James Baldwin’s voice was that of a homosexual. His tenor range had an effete lilting cadence that would finish sentences with syllables that would trail off for ages. Baldwin’s speech patterns would speed up and stop with the force of an upper class intellectual rather than that of a preacher. In the interviews threaded throughout I Am A Negro, James Baldwin’s affectations and patterns announce him as a black Gore Vidal. Yet, when reading Baldwin’s words, Samuel L croaks through the text like an exhausted man reading the deathbed diary of Malcolm X.
The title I Am Not Your Negro is provocative, but also ironic. Raoul Peck spends 90 minutes pigeonholing James Baldwin into a space where he doesn’t comfortably fit. Baldwin was an outsider of an outsider. Right from the beginning of his life, when he sought solace from his home life in the arms of a white Harlem teacher, Baldwin had a life that set him outside the usual black experience. When he saw how black men and how gay men were treated in America, he ran off to Paris where he would write the queer novel Giovanni’s Room in 1956. It was only after he saw pictures of the abuse happening in America that Baldwin returned and joined the fight for civil rights with his fellow American black men.
Baldwin’s activism privileged him with access to civil rights leaders and his intellectualism granted him access to being interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show, as well as giving many speeches on college campuses across the country. Many of these speeches were filmed, and these video resources give I Am Not Your Negro its real heart and soul. Through these interviews, we hear Baldwin’s true voice, one of sharp passion and insight that cuts through people like a knife.
I Am Not Your Negro is ostensibly pulled from 30 pages of notes he pulled together for a book proposal about his relationship with three assassinated civil rights leaders: Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The notes were never assembled into a finished essay, as Baldwin would abandon the book and resume writing about sexuality and homosexuality (after his death, McGraw-Hill tried suing Baldwin’s estate to recoup the advance but later dropped the suit). Director Raoul Peck has stated that he spent years searching for an in road to making a documentary about James Baldwin. These notes, discovered late in the research period, provided the building blocks about being black in America that would form I Am Not Your Negro.
The notes, titled Remember This House, are incomplete and, as assembled by Peck, meandering. Medgar Evars is barely a name in the dust, while Malcolm and King are figures that stand over the essay more than figure into it. Remember This House is, instead, Baldwin assessing life as a black American at the turn of the culture. Originally written in 1979, when Baldwin was 55 years old, Remember This House examines the way that mass culture shapes the worldview of both Black and White Americans; the oppressed and the oppressors.
Peck pinballs through American culture, ricocheting from civil rights actions to cultural examinations of Hollywood presentations of black men in a constant conversation. The mass culture reinforces the dominance of white America and the devaluation of black America. The civil rights movements threatens the dominant paradigm, even though they attempted to work within the system to raise up the black community. This disruption threatens the white dominant power structure, inciting reactions to reinforce the white dominance. This reaction only reinvigorates the need for the oppressed to rise up against their oppressors.
Baldwin was a far more radical figure than Peck or Remember This House allows. He couldn’t stand with the Christian church (King) because they self-segregated, and he couldn’t see himself as a Muslim (Malcolm X) for the same reason. He was a socialist who advocated for overthrowing the American system. He frequently mentioned the necessity for bloody violence in the search for racial equality in America. He once called the Civil Rights movement another slave rebellion. He didn’t belong to the Black Panthers, the NAACP, nor any of the other groups because they participated in the class problem that plagued the country. The essay in I Am Not Your Negro stops just short of calling for insurrection, as Samuel L’s Baldwin gravely wonders why black men hadn’t gone on a shooting spree yet. And yet, Samuel L’s exhausted delivery robs these passionate words of their force.
There’s a lot of exhaustion in I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin was 55 when he wrote Remember This House. Samuel L Jackson is 68 years old. Raoul Peck is 63. Perhaps the exhausted tone of Jackson’s narration stems from the nature of the essay. These gentlemen have been fighting the fight for some time and are wondering why so little progress has happened since Remember This House was written. The two defining themes of I Am Not Your Negro are “this is how mass culture reinforces the oppressed/oppressor mentality” and “can you believe this shit hasn’t changed?” Though Peck neglects to include much mass culture beyond 1968, one can intone that some of the discussions about racial roles and the allowance of diversity on screen hold the same for how they manipulate the mindset of the public at large. White people, Black people, Brown people, we’re all subjected to the same repeated message of cultural dominance.
Giovanni’s Room was Baldwin’s first gay novel, but it was about white people. James Baldwin had to separate out his race from his sexuality because he couldn’t parse the issues stemming from the “Negro problem” and the “gay problem.” Though respected among his peers, Baldwin’s sexuality kept him outside of the outsiders. He was disinvited from the March on Washington, and his moves to France was in part due to his sexuality. Perhaps his notes for Remember This House continued the stony separation between his blackness and his homosexuality. But, I Am Not Your Negro is not Remember This House, and Peck could have touched on Baldwin’s gay writings, if this movie is ostensibly about James Baldwin.
Peck waffles on the intended purpose of I Am Not Your Negro. At times, it is an essay on blackness and racial segregation, an essay on James Baldwin, an essay on mass culture, and an essay on civil rights movements in America. Peck and Baldwin devote a full section to discussing how the chaste nature of black men in Hollywood cinema made racial liberation easier for the liberal moderate audience. But, the section takes on an ironic tone when Peck is heterosexualizing Baldwin for his own comfort. When Jackson as Baldwin observes that America cannot reconcile their public and private (read: sexual) personas, one can’t help but wonder if Baldwin was trying to reconcile his (private) homosexuality with his (public) activist nature. Perhaps the final version of this book would have filtered his views on race in America with his sexuality. Peck never elaborates on this. To not understand Baldwin’s homosexuality and how it relates to his blackness is to misunderstand James Baldwin.
Jesus Christ, Julius. Not everything has to be about LGBTQ rights. Can’t you just let an essay on blackness in America be an essay about being black in America? If I Am Not Your Negro had come out five years ago (admittedly, before the BLM movement that gives this film its fire), or if Peck had made this film using a heterosexual author, I Am Not Your Negro wouldn’t have this “gay” problem. This wrestling with Baldwin’s sexuality extends outside the film. When being interviewed by Out Magazine, Raoul Peck never mentions the Baldwin’s sexuality nor how he came into contact with his writing, but in the LA Times, Peck discusses how two gay friends gave him Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. I don’t know if Raoul Peck is comfortable discussing gay issues in America, but I get the sense that it isn’t his field of expertise. Which would be fine if it were about any other figure.
Regardless of Peck’s misdealings with Baldwin’s queerness, I Am Not Your Negro is less powerful than other films and documentaries exploring historical American blackness and how it connects with modern situations. Ava Duvernay’s 13th walks us from the Civil War through modern times, to explore how past racism morphs into modern incarceration. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is far more thorough in its assessment of the civil rights era and how white people used various methods to stop the movement. They both are more infuriating in how much things haven’t changed since 1970. If you’re looking for how modern culture reflects the culture of the past, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled keeps things much more current, exploring how late 90s culture was still used to control the groupthink of the masses.
However, there are moments of I Am Not Your Negro that are transcendent. A montage of various political figures apologizing after one civil rights catastrophe or another laid over footage of racial oppression is a gorgeous moment (though even it is a bit murky in its visual execution). But, the real strength of I Am Not Your Negro comes directly from James Baldwin’s words. Whether Jackson is speaking them, or Baldwin is speaking in video clips, James Baldwin’s words are direct, uncompromising and erudite. The footage of James Baldwin giving the look of “Can you believe this shit?” to the camera when confronted by a white official on The Dick Cavett Show is worth the price of admission alone, nevertheless the tongue lashing that follows. But, this inclusion is also damning. It is a statement for audiences to rally around, but it also indicts the same white audience who will hoot and holler in self-satisfied agreement. Raoul Peck has a lot on his mind about white America and its relation to black America, but frequently lets modern audiences off the hook. A more refined edit wouldn’t give audiences room to breathe in their own comfort of “I am not a racist.”
As much as I value the message of I Am Not Your Negro, the movie just isn’t as polished as it needs to be. Peck can’t match minds with the great James Baldwin. That said, it has so many valuable cultural observations, in much the same way that The Celluloid Closet dissected queer coding in classic Hollywood, that I also can’t not recommend it. It’s a deeply flawed must see.
As a final note about intersectionality, there is little room in I Am Not Your Negro for women. Once in a blue moon, Baldwin will name drop somebody like Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), but this is still a rather masculinist treatment of the civil rights movement.