Raoul Peck

James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy

James Baldwin understood that capitalism lurked behind slavery and white supremacy in America, even if that side doesn't quite emerge from 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” was to try to understand the African American experience. That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.

Baldwin’s project was deeply serious, his conclusions generated by personal anguish and anguished thought, and his words are majestic, still. “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has begun runs at Cinema-21, the Hollywood Theatre and Kiggins Theatre, after playing the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Black Film Festival) is awash in those words, those descriptions, those insights, that anguish.

The film does other things, too. It tracks the intersection of Baldwin with other black leaders of the ‘60s—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It shows how Baldwin’s reading of the media around him, specifically Hollywood movies, changed as he began to become aware of the deep racism that infected the system. And it shows how Baldwin came to place the blame for America’s “race problem” squarely where it belonged.

James Baldwin, center, is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

“But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” Baldwin says in the film. “It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives—it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.” African Americans, of course, are the stranger, and “maligned” is a rather tepid word for the evil that white people visited on them.

He continues: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“You need it…” Peck’s film leaves the talking to Baldwin, his descriptions and explanations of our racial history, of the crimes white people committed, the lives they distorted, because they “needed it.” It’s a powerful film because Baldwin’s truth is so powerful.

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