This is a documentary
film, released in 2016, directed by Raoul Peck
, with writing credit given solely to James Baldwin
. Baldwin died in 1987. The film is based on a book he had planned to write, about three major figures of the civil rights movement
who had been assassinated: Martin Luther King Jr
, Malcolm X
, and Medgar Evers
. The unfinished manuscript was titled Remember This House
. In the film the excerpts are read in brooding tones by Samuel L. Jackson
, in stark opposition to Baldwin's distinctively hesitant pattern of speaking.
The substance of the documentary is mostly voice-over readings from the unfinished manuscript, paired with archival footage from the days of the civil rights movement, clips from racially-tinged films of the 1930s-60s, and some newer footage of racial struggles in 21st century America. A few of Baldwin's letters are also used, and some short segments from interviews & speeches he gave over a span of several decades. The resulting documentary is partly about Baldwin, and partly about his experiences of Malcolm & Martin in the flesh. Evers, being a less famous man than the others, is given relatively little screen time and his voice is not heard. The whole thing has quite an abstract, meditative quality to it; as a result, we do not learn anything new about the movement or any of the people involved, but we do get a sense of what Baldwin was thinking at the time.
In short, Baldwin seemed to think that the issue of civil rights was more complex and psychologically meaningful than his comrades were making it out to be. He did not say this directly, but it can be heard in the way he speaks, and seen in his expressions of troubled awe when he is listening to his colleagues speak, or traveling with Medgar around America. When he is contradicted or opposed, his face shows concern rather than resoluteness. One gets a sense that he is exasperated by the largeness of the thing, and he cannot stand to simplify it in order to make it more easily digestible for the people around him. As an example, there is a short piece of footage around halfway through the film, from a panel discussion with Malcolm and Martin together (Baldwin was not present), in which they put forward their positions as succinctly as possible. I will paraphrase below.
Malcolm: The struggle for equality and justice starts with strident self-respect, and exerting ones own rights is a necessity that may require violence.
Martin: The struggle requires love and compassion, since respect and love from other people is the only way to attain equality and justice.
In opposition to this, we see Baldwin speaking several times with interviewers who ask him direct questions about issues of race, equality, and civil rights. Baldwin always seems to veer off the topic, almost to avoid answering, but I suspect that it is because he believes the questions are simply too large to answer with a sentence. He must explain his whole existence in order to make someone understand his position. By way of example, here is Baldwin speaking:
… I am an American. My school was the streets of New York City, my frame of reference was George Washington and John Wayne. But I was a child, and a child uses what he sees, there's nothing else to use. And you are formed by what you see and the choices you have to make and you discover what it means to be black in New York, and then throughout the entire country. I know how you watch as you grow older — and this is not a figure of speech — the corpses of your brothers and sisters pile up around you. And not for anything they have done. They were too young to have done anything. But what one does realise is that, when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.1
In his interviews and speeches he always seemed to have a firm grip on the problem; it was the concrete plan for a solution that would decline to suggest. Malcolm drew crowds because of his invigorating and inspiring calls to action. I suspect that Baldwin drew crowds because of his ability to compassionately relate to the problems people faced on a daily basis, and to help articulate the emotions that were swirling beneath the surface of their lives. As a firebrand he did have his moments, however, and there is a wonderful moment in the film where he makes an impassioned response to a white professor's suggestion that he can basically choose to ignore racism in his life if he so chooses:
I don't know what most white people in this country feel, I can only infer what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don't know whether white Christians hate negroes or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black [ … ] it means that I cannot afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church. I don't know whether the labor unions and their bosses hate me, that doesn't matter, but I know that I'm not in their unions. I don't know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know they keep me in the ghetto! [ … ] Now this is the evidence, and you want me to make an act of faith, risking my self, my wife, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, and which I have never seen?2
Baldwin was undoubtedly a passionate, eloquent, morally righteous, and fiercely intelligent man. But I think the reason why we do not usually remember him as a leading light for civil rights is that he never had a clear and simple message that people could take home with them. In contrast, people feel that they can understand Malcolm and Martin, even if they do not agree with them. Perhaps these two men were simply better at packaging their message for the crowd than Baldwin was. Baldwin often seemed to be talking around the issues and delving into the subtle emotional underpinnings of people's suffering, rather than carrying the torch and leading them in action. In a way he ended up being the most human of the three men, but at times of danger and suffering people may prefer simple principles over a complex and empathetic human being. He was an artist, first and foremost, with a true artist's empathy.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.3
So in this way, the film suffers from the same problem that Baldwin himself did; it lacks a message that you can take away from it. It seems to meander and dwell on the sidelines, without ever getting to the point. Like Baldwin it is expressive and beautiful in its own way, but if you area looking for a moral to the story, then you might be disappointed.
As an aside, the title of the film is a self-censored version of what I believe is the true title, "I am not a Nigger". It is a line spoken by Baldwin in an interview near the end of the film, and one that very nicely encapsulates Baldwin's whole approach to the issue of race, by which I mean using it as a search for human understanding:
What white people have to do is try to find out, in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it [ … ] I'm not the nigger here. You invented him; you, the white people invented him. And you have to find out why.4
1 - From a speech given by Baldwin at the West Indian Student Centre, London.
2 - Discussion with Dr Paul Weiss, Yale philosopher, on The Dick Cavett Show
3 - James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
4 - Baldwin in an interview with Kenneth Clark, 1963 (starting at 18:52)
Note that the interviews referenced above all appear in the documentary, but I have tried to find something close to their original sources.