I Am Not Your Negro - A Screening at the Block Museum
By Shenali Perera
As I sat in the Pick-Laudati Auditorium of the Block Museum, I felt a gentle wave of excitement take over the audience. Constantly, heads turned to glance at the far left corner of the room where Raoul Peck, dressed in a long black coat, stood quietly. We were about to watch the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck. The words of James Baldwin’s Remember This House, through Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, narrate the documentary. It chronicles the deaths of three tremendously influential men during America’s Civil Rights Movement: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin’s perspective and powerful discourse guide many today.
Kyle Henry, Associate Professor in the RTVF department, addressed the audience before the screening. Besides the obligatory dedications and announcements, he also described the impact of the film and its “deeply humanistic” nature. He invited Peck to speak as well, at which point Peck discussed the impact Baldwin had upon his life: “I was 18 when I read The Fire Next Time, and from that moment Baldwin never left me. He helped me understand my life, the contradictions of the places where I was living. He helped me...deconstruct what I was seeing on television, in the cinema, in books. He basically guided me throughout my life. I always say, in times of despair it is always good to go back to Baldwin. He is an extraordinary humanist.”
The hall erupted with applause, the lights dimmed, and the film began. From the beginning, Peck confronts the audience with potent images and propaganda illustrating the oppression of the black man. These images and pieces of film accent Baldwin’s words, and many times the subject makes jarringly direct eye contact with the audience - an intentional choice by Peck. Also, the deep and somber narration evokes a sobering atmosphere that causes your brain to slow down and absorb every word. Truly transformative.
Alongside the visual aspect of the film, Baldwin’s words are unforgettable. He describes his childhood, the shock of discovering that he was not white, the fact that in his once favourite movies where cowboys heroically fight and kill the Indians, he is the Indian and never the cowboy. He says he could “never manage to hate white people” yet “[his] countrymen were [his] enemy.” He was the most despised child in the Western house, and truly believed he was not human. He describes the Sidney Poitier film, “The Defiant Ones,” and says “When Sidney Poitier jumps off the train, the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful. But when black people saw him jump off the train, they yelled: ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’” The audience rippled with laughter and snapping fingers. Baldwin argues that terror is the root of the white man’s hatred, inspiring the segregation that allows white people to be blissfully ignorant and apathetic. Again, the audience hummed in agreement.
Peck contrasts Baldwin’s words with images of today: cruel clips from the 2014 riots, distorted clips of politicians facetiously apologizing, former president Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and African Americans today speaking Baldwin’s words as well. His work is as relevant today as it was during the 60s, and it amazed me how our society has not progressed as much as I had thought. Peck notes, “When we started the project, we had no idea that this country would have a black president. When Obama was elected, we had to face the reality of the film. Baldwin helped me in that process. In response to the question if America were to have a black president what will he do, he replied the important question is what country he will be the president of.”
The film leaves us with his words, “I am not a nigger. I am a man. If I'm not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why.”
The following question and answer session gave further insight into the film. In response to Associate Professor Miriam Petty’s question “What kinds of problems did Baldwin help you solve?” he replied, “Probably that at the time, in the 70s, there were not many artists, journalists, even writers with whom you could really relate and feel at home. For a young black third-world person, you were always learning from the 3rd or 4th or 5th character in a film.” Many of the audience, including myself, laughed in agreement. He continued, “You were never totally at ease. Somehow, without knowing, you felt that something was not quite right. It was quite complicated to find yourself. Baldwin was one of the first [artists] with whom you could totally engage. He was giving you keys, with which you could understand what you intuitively felt.”
Concerning the film’s traps in its creation, Peck says “The obvious trap is to start to make a film for which you have no model. The James Baldwin estate gave me access to all the materials. So now you have this treasure so you can’t afford to make a bad film. Also, it was at the moment where almost everyone had forgotten about Baldwin.” Another challenge was reconciling Samuel L. Jackson's voice with the clips of the real James Baldwin speaking in such a way that “doesn’t distract or cause too many questions.” Thus, he had to entertain a lot of trial and error.
“The idea of the film is to bring Baldwin’s work to the front line. I had to respect those words, not manipulate or second guess him. To put myself in the background. A lot of the images, the feelings, came from him. It helped that I had many similar experiences. I could really penetrate Baldwin’s intentions, not to speak in his place, but to be inside his head. He is the one speaking to us, with this intimacy. He’s not antagonising you; he’s like a big brother that tells you the truth, the reality.”