When James Baldwin died in 1987, he left behind not only some of the world’s greatest literature but painfully, an unfinished novel of which the title was intended to be ‘Remember This House’. 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 took away from these writings was the essence of Baldwin’s writing—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 table of civil rights, they were nevertheless all murdered before the age of forty. In a rare appearance on television, Baldwin encapsulated very neatly America’s most disgusting double-standard: “If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin 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 was in amidst the Civil Rights movement, and almost succeeds. The film loses in depth 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 indeed trying to be put on an important issue that is very much still relevant today. Unfortunately, Peck over-relies on Samuel L. Jackson’s mainstream appeal to narrate in order to captivate the viewer’s interest, and on top of this throws in small fragments of contemporary footage which only results in a saturated 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.
Baldwin’s qualms and uncertainties about the “negro’s” future in America go hand in hand with that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which he has expressed in his recent novel “Between the World and Me” (2015). The novel’s central theme is America’s systematic destruction of the black body and its core place in the building of America. Baldwin stresses how these three incredible men, seen as a threat to the social hierarchy of the White Man, were all killed and “destroyed” before they could even reach the age of forty.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is a necessary piece of documentation and a commendable effort at carrying out this contemplation on the African-American’s place in a society that built itself on their ancestor’s backs.