Samuel L. Jackson narrates a scathing manuscript from Baldwin (center).
When the great author, essayist and public intellectual James Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript titled Remember This House. The manuscript was a personal account of the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred over the course of five years (1963-68). As Baldwin wrote in his book proposal, he wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”
Now, 30 years after Baldwin’s death, the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has brought Remember This House to fruition with the Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The film uses the words of Baldwin’s manuscript (narrated by screen great Samuel L. Jackson in his natural voice, copying neither Baldwin’s lyrical cadences nor the fiery oratorical delivery for which the actor has become known) to explore the genesis and depths of America’s so-called Negro problem.
Peck blends historical and contemporary film and television footage, still photographs, written words and music set to Baldwin’s words to excavate the roots of America’s self-perpetuating fantasy. Baldwin’s language, always greatly admired by other writers, still comes through with its pinpoint precision, mellifluous rhythm and stirring undertow. An avid watcher of movies, Baldwin cites many examples of the complexity of screen identity, and Peck supports Baldwin’s examples with film clips that delve into the images of John Wayne, Doris Day, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Peck also employs a great deal of historical material from the 1960s, documenting the marches, riots and political movements of the era as well as the commonalities and differences among the three murdered leaders.
Baldwin calls out his country’s “moral apathy,” and how it is the responsibility of witnesses to get the story out. Peck enhances the archival material with fresh images of the racial offenses shoved into public light by the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which, despite lending I Am Not Your Negro a contemporaneous context, also permanently fixes the film in time (perhaps to its long-term detriment).
Ideas and their visual illustrations come at the viewer in a cascading torrent. The editing by Alexandra Strauss deserves its own recognition for its painstaking exactness. Never one to toe any party line, Baldwin was not a Black Muslim or Christian, a member of the NAACP or the Black Power movement. He had an acuteness of vision that was distinctly his own, and his work belongs on every bookshelf in America. Now, with the wide release of I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s words can be heard on every movie screen in the land.