A documentary by Raoul Peck. Rated PG
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1843 story “The Birth-Mark”, an erudite American gentleman’s ardour for his beautiful wife founders on his obsession with a small, blood-red spot on her cheek. In time, he procures a magic potion that gradually makes the mark disappear—along with his beloved!
The USA’s love-hate relationship with its own self-image—proud, but harshly marked by native genocide and 250 years of African slavery—was the central subject of James Baldwin, the foremost black intellectual of the last century. Unwritten colour codes meant that very few such men and women penetrated public consciousness, but Baldwin possessed both astounding talent and persistence. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, up for a best-documentary Oscar, among other honours, distills the writer’s passions to one incendiary subject: the murders of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Although the 90-minute effort contains just enough relevant background to establish Baldwin’s uniquely expansive voice, it treads lightly on his semi-out sexuality. It also relies on Samuel L. Jackson to read, in a thoroughly unmannered and expletive-free fashion, excerpts from the written but largely unpublished work that triggered the movie. (In a Jackson-esque clip, Baldwin actually coins the title using that other N word, which Negro sensibly tones down.)
The words are sometimes stronger than the images, and Peck could perhaps have saved modern footage of Ferguson et al. until the end, to leave us where Americans are today—which is to say in a nation riven by worn-out lies and unfulfilled promises. But like Baldwin himself, the film entertains with poetic erudition while making you face facts.
Alongside the bittersweet recollections of his friends and their violent times, the writer offered keen analysis of how movies—John Wayne winning the West, Stepin Fetchit sleeping in the barn—shaped our perceptions of history, and of the present. The most abiding benefit of white privilege is simply being allowed to put privilege out of your mind. Here’s a movie that won’t let you rub away the blemishes or stay deaf “when all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak”, as Baldwin put it. Instead, you’re invited to be able to see and hear them with clarity, and with the right kind of anger.