When James Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind not only some of America’s finest literature and frustratingly, an unfinished novel whose working title was intended to be ‘Remember This House’. which consisted of A mere collection of notes, documents and a manuscript. Director Raoul Peck took on the heavy task to pick up the pieces of Baldwin’s final literary effort.
What Peck understood from these writings was the essence of Baldwin’s philosophy—his lifelong demand to be his own man in a society that makes him experience his life through his skin colour. The way he sees it, the African-American has always been the White Man’s slave, and now slavery is abolished, subconsciously does not want break down the mental barrier that is the construct of “whiteness” and “blackness”.
At its core, ‘Remember This House’ was a personal insight into the lives of three great men deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in America: Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Each bringing three very different ideologies and approaches to the struggle for civil rights, they were predictably all murdered before the age of forty. In a rare appearance on television, Baldwin encapsulated very neatly white America’s most ingrained double-standard: “If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin accurately states. “When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
Peck attempts to explore the problematic position Baldwin caught up in amidst the Civil Rights movement, and almost succeeds. The film loses in dramatic effect as Peck draws links between Baldwin’s take on the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and race relations in America today. The emphasis is intended to show how these issues are all very much still relevant today. For me, Peck over-relies on Samuel L. Jackson’s mainstream appeal to narrate in order to captivate the viewer’s interest, and in addition to this has resort to small fragments of contemporary footage which results in a collage of vague notions and angles on the subject of race.
It is important to realise that not being on either side of the civil rights’ spectrum, he was not quite as popular as more extreme icons such as Malcom X or Martin Luther King. In the late fifties and early sixties especially, the mainstream movement struggled to identify with Baldwin’s words, due to the complexity of his arguments or his homosexuality. This included the likes of Martin Luther King, banning the “inflammatory” James Baldwin from appearing in the 1963 March in Washington, along with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver who made numerous homophobic comments regarding Baldwin.
Many of Baldwin’s fears and uncertainties about the “negro’s” future in America run parallel with those of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which he has expressed in his recent letter to his son, “Between the World and Me” (2015). The letter’s central theme is America’s systematic destruction of the black body and its key place in the building of America’s economy. Baldwin stresses how these three influential men, seen as a threat to the social hierarchy of the White supremacist, were all killed and “destroyed” before they could fulfill their true potential.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is an essential piece of documentation and a commendable effort at carrying out the assessment of the African-American’s place in a society that built itself on slavery and a denial of civil rights. The documentary shows that it is the change in mental approach to race relations that needs to be achieved, and we are still a long way from attaining this as the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement has shown.