Baldwin Documentary Reveals Continuing Discrimination

Mariel Rossi-deVries, editor

Raoul Peck’s documentary style commentary I Am Not Your Negro brings the writing of James Baldwin to a broad stage. The film, which was first shown at the Toronto International Film festival in September of 2016, has continued to circulate through US theaters.

The movie pulls from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember The House, along with his other works, which are narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson. The 30 page manuscript recounts the deaths of Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, and provides a unique commentary.

Baldwin died in 1987 before finishing the book, one of the last well known living advocates of his time. Peck used Baldwin’s notes, as well as clips from various interviews where he spoke. According to NPR, Peck first had the idea for a movie about Baldwin long before, but gained inspiration after reading his letters from 1979 detailing his idea for Remember The House. 

I Am Not Your Negro is structured so that Baldwin’s speeches are juxtaposed with film footage pulled from 1950’s commercials and modern videos, each reinforcing Baldwin’s opinion that racial inequality is tied to American culture. Cult classics like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) are examined as Baldwin shows how Hollywood refused to face discrimination through the facade of diversity in the film industry.

Baldwin believed that most films were less about mutual understanding and more about white people trying to prove that their cruelty and racial bigotry are things of the past. By creating films glorifying equality between African Americans and whites, they are trying to dispel their guilt for a system of oppression that still exists. As Baldwin said in his earlier work, The Devil Finds Work, “It is a terrible thing, simply, to be trapped in one’s history, and attempt, in the same motion (and in this, our life!) to accept, deny, reject, and redeem it — and, also, on whatever level, to profit from it.”

Baldwin analyzes how white Americans attempt to confirm their inclusiveness in film. He asserts that they want forgiveness for racism they imagine is no longer present within society.

Peck’s film attempts to make the past relevant in the present. A study conducted in 2016 by USC entitled “Inclusion or Invisibility” showed that only 12.2% of named or speaking characters in film were black, while 5.8 were Latino and 2.3% were Middle Eastern. Gender inequity is just as prevalent, with women composing 33.5% of all speaking roles in media platforms. Our media reflects how little our stance on racial equality has progressed since the 1950’s.

Although we tell ourselves that today we are far more tolerant than 50 or even 20 years before, the numbers show that discrimination has only shifted into another innocuous form.  The 2016 documentary 13th directed by Ava DuVernay reveals that overt racism has transformed into mass incarceration. In the years of 2014 to 2015, 56.9% of hate crimes were motivated by an ethnic or racial bias with the 2nd highest percentage being religious bias, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

In an 1963 interview with psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, known as “The Negro and the American Promise,” Baldwin said “I wonder, how precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how are you going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?” Our country must now face the fact that we have not become less racist, we have just become better at masking it.

Given voice and overlaying videos of film footage taken from the 1970’s and modern 2010’s, Baldwin’s words seem like a timeless description of race relations. As footage of police in riot gear shoving into a crowd or brutally beating defenseless men in the street flash across the screen along with words written by Baldwin in his literature. His words matched the current situation faced by African American society as well as it did over 50 years before.

Brutal honesty is what turns this film into a documentary about a society flawed at its core. Baldwin not only comments on racial inequality, but on the garish way that mainstream American culture has sought to ignore and justify discrimination. “The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is a price we pay for segregation, it’s what segregation means. You don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know,” said Baldwin in a segment of Florida Forum, Miami, from 1963.

Viewers are left with the idea that their tranquil suburban lives and movie favorites like The Breakfast Club are an entirely different reality than the one experienced by those who are not Caucasian or part of the middle class. I Am Not Your Negro is a peek at the unpleasant reality and a call to action against apathy.

Baldwin said in a his interview with Kenneth Clark when asked how he felt about the future of African Americans in the country, “The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of this country… 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.”