Tuesday 25 April 2017

Black man's burden: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Somewhere deep down in the rightly glowing reviews for Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro, there may be an acknowledgement that this is, among other things, a rediscovery of a vital and compelling critical voice; and that, as such, the film makes the case for us almost as well as it does the case for James Baldwin. Peck's hybrid - part biog, part rumination - takes as its raw material those notes and letters Baldwin penned in advance of Remember This House, the project the writer began in late 1979 but left behind as an unfinished manuscript upon his death eight years later. The book was commissioned as a memoir in which Baldwin would cast his eye back to mid-century America and reflect upon his relationships with the late Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; while addressing the civil-rights era those men embodied - the struggle for recognition and parity, the pushback against hidebound institutional racism, the sight of young black men being shot down in the streets - Peck also elects to cast an eye forwards to the present day, the fallout from Ferguson and the first stirrings of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in so doing, he invites us to weight up how far or little we've travelled in the past fifty years.

For the most part, the film is conventionally composed: Baldwin (as voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) talks us through his ideas and observations over a variety of footage pulled from the archive. Peck has one popcultural advantage, though, in that Baldwin was a particularly astute viewer of the movies, capable of taking down such putative landmarks as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? - or allowing them to take themselves down simply by setting them against a commentary on the harsher realities of their times. This tension between idealised image and imperfect, deleterious actuality runs throughout the film. In a televised 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union - a fascinating scene in itself, with the great black intellectual surrounded by white scions of privilege, and no less an adversary than William F. Buckley lurking in the wings - we witness Baldwin elucidating the Eureka moment he experienced upon watching a Gary Cooper western and realising that, culturally, he had more in common with the defeated injuns than he did with the white-hatted hero.

The collage approach ensures I Am Not Your Negro tesselates appreciably with Goran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 and Concerning Violence, themselves potent documents of that post-war period of reconstruction when all the old issues of colonialism and hegemony were suddenly up for discussion again. Yet the Baldwin of the late Seventies is clearly speaking from the perspective of a battered and bruised survivor of that tumult, one of the few who lived past forty to patch together and pass on the sorry tale that the likes of Evers, King and X couldn't. Certainly, Peck's film never lacks for explosive, blood-spattered footage drawn from the fractious frontlines of the civil-rights battle: here is history being made before our eyes, with a cordon of scowling or smirking white supremacists doing their damnedest to stop it. All of which can't help but make you wonder: are we just going round in circles nowadays? And is there any way out of the cycle?

Given the gestation period of the average documentary, it's possible Negro was pitched and developed as one film - straight-up Baldwin biography - before shapeshifting into another as events beyond the editing suite developed. The biggest indictment Peck makes of our time is formal: it is genuinely shocking just how seamlessly the archived, Kodachromed images cut together with that footage sourced from, say, 2014's Ferguson unrest. Baldwin's words continue to resonate when set to news coverage of those 21st century youngsters shot down by police, or of America's rapidly swelling, increasingly black prison populations (subject, of course, of Ava duVernay's recent 13TH); when he identifies an "unfeeling white majority" who consider him inhuman, the accusation chimes with certain Brexiteers' (and certain Brexit-supporting newspapers') attitudes toward migrants of any shade. Cultures infantilised by capitalism seek solace in fantasy and reassuring self-images; within those cultures, minorities have tended to be recast as boogeymen bringing chaos in their wake. 

It may have required a storyteller to finesse this point, and it becomes an obvious problem when violence - the right to bear arms - is as much part of your culture as cherry pie. As Baldwin is heard to argue at one point, the treatment of the negro shows up the American Dream - freedom and good times for all - as the sham it might well be. Race remains the most complex of issues, as the film that beat Negro and 13TH to the Best Documentary Oscar (O.J.: Made in America) demonstrates at length, and if there are no easy answers or quick fixes here, the Baldwin we encounter proves as good a guide as any: supremely eloquent, invariably sober, he's a paragon of thoughtfully channelled anger, chastened by events while remaining quietly hopeful we might see better down the line - in our lifetime, if not his. You emerge from this thoroughly energising film burning to know what he would have had to say on the Obama era, the success of Get Out, the Rachel Dolezal saga - for, like the very best critics, Baldwin makes us a sharper, more engaged observer of both the world and its people.

I Am Not Your Negro is now playing in selected cinemas.

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