Some of the most acute and devastating insights on race in America came from African-American writer James Baldwin. He grew up in Harlem, moved to Paris to flee racism, and returned for a time during the American Civil Rights Movement; his analysis of the nation has the depth of a thinker who is at once native son and outsider. Director Raoul Peck places Baldwin at the center of a new film, I Am Not Your Negro, which screens at the Portland Museum of Art this weekend. In this searing, elegantly crafted documentary, Peck sets Baldwin’s life and ideas against imagery from the nation’s political history and popular culture, both celebrating the writer and using him as a lens to consider our long and continued racial wounds.
Peck frames I Am Not Your Negro around an unfinished project of Baldwin’s, begun in 1979, to examine America through the lives of three close friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin got as far as 30 pages of notes toward the project, titled Remember This House. Peck lets Baldwin’s own words drive the film, carefully excerpting from notes, letters, and essays (read by a subdued, reverent Samuel L. Jackson), and including dazzling footage of Baldwin himself, speaking at debates and on television.
As B-roll to Baldwin, Peck assembles an extraordinary body of archival material — of the three murdered leaders, segregationists, black marchers, politicians, and more. Sometimes Peck follows the lead of Baldwin’s words, and sometimes he elaborates pointedly: As Baldwin talks about the disconnect between “America's moral stance and public life,” we see a vapidly smiling white family shopping in a shiny 1960's supermarket. As Baldwin talks about the "corpses of your brothers and sisters" piling up, we see smiling school portraits of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
Peck also draws cannily from popular culture. We see cuts from films and performances that are part of Baldwin’s analysis — heroism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin versus in Stagecoach; the tonal America of Gary Cooper and Doris Day versus that of Ray Charles. We see old ads featuring subservient blacks with bulging eyes, and a white woman bemoaning her daughters’ black boyfriends on a talk show. We even see the banalities of “The Gong Show,” while Baldwin memorably observes, "To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality."
Particularly penetrating are Baldwin’s reflections about the psyche of the subjugator, about the terror and damage at his core. "You cannot lynch me and keep me in the ghetto without becoming something monstrous yourselves," we hear, as Peck shows us photos of hung black men. And Baldwin, live in debate: “If you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it. If I am not a nigger here, and you invented him — you, the American people, invented him — then you've got to figure out why.”
And the expressive nuance of Baldwin’s delivery is arresting — his sad glance down or tired look away, the unexpected warmth of a grin, his hands come suddenly alive, how he wistfully draws out an s. At times, he projects almost embarrassment for white America. At times, almost pity.
Peck’s film is a revelation of Baldwin’s spirit and a continuation of his formidable cultural synthesis. The filmmaker asks us to by turns witness, contemplate, condemn, praise, and, above all, to look. "Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin writes, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced." I Am Not Your Negro brings Baldwin’s words into a present America that still desperately, urgently needs to hear them.
I Am Not Your Negro | Written by James Baldwin. Directed by Raoul Peck. Screens at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq., Portland | Fri March 10, 2 & 6:30 p.m.; Sun March 12 11:30 a.m., 2 & 5 p.m. | $8 | www.portlandmuseum.org/events/movies