In this way, Mr. Peck’s film is “the capstone, the crown of these documentaries,” said Richard Blint, a scholar at the Pratt Institute who is working on a project about James Baldwin and American cinema.
The film covers the five years in which those leaders were assassinated, but it also retells the history of the long 20th century and now 21st century through the lens of American race relations. Mr. Peck achieves this by using rare footage of Baldwin giving interviews and speeches in the 1960s, and even more impressive, by revealing how intimately tied the technologies of American film have always been to our country’s practices and policies of racial inequality.
Like Baldwin’s seamless shifts between personal anecdote and political analysis in his essays, Mr. Peck sets images of 1960s civil rights protests next to recent ones from the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore; uses footage of the 1965 Watts riots to interrupt hyper-patriotic clips from the 1960 United States Savings Bond promotional film, “The Land We Love”; and undercuts scenes from westerns valorizing Gary Cooper with excerpts from Baldwin’s Oxford debate, in which he confesses shock to discover “although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
“Baldwin has been with me all my life, all my conscious life,” Mr. Peck said in an interview. “He is someone I learned from very early on, someone who framed me, taught me how to think, to deconstruct stories, images, narratives, and I have used him all my life. He was never just an author — he was a witness for me.”
The filmmaker recalled how Baldwin’s writing directly affected his own way of seeing when his family moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo from Haiti when he was 8. “My whole imaginary world was filled with American movies, which for many people around the world is the dominant narrative,” he explained. “When I went to Congo, my image of Africa was of savages running in the jungle and a few white men who are civilized and trying to teach the natives how to be a human being.”
He paused: “But it hit me the second I put my feet on the tarmac in Congo, that I was told a totally false story that didn’t match what I’m now feeling and seeing. This capacity and privilege to be able to not only live through whatever you are in at the moment but also to have some distance and analyze whatever is happening to you is something that I read in Baldwin’s work.”
Mr. Peck relied heavily on “The Devil Finds Work,” a 1976 book-length essay in which Baldwin explored his intimate and vexed relationship as a consumer, critic and sometimes creator of American film. “I am fascinated by the movement on, and off, the screen,” Baldwin declares and shares his fascination at the age of 7 with “the straight, narrow, lonely back” of Joan Crawford in “Dance, Fools, Dance.” Yet as much as the young Baldwin might have been seduced by the power of Hollywood, his older, writerly self sought to expose the racial fantasies and racist stereotypes that the industry was built on and that were endlessly reproduced around the world.
Recalling films that celebrated minstrel-like performances from Mantan Moreland, Willie Best, Lincoln Perry (a.k.a. Stepin Fetchit) and other African-American actors, Baldwin wrote: “It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it, and certainly I did not know anybody like them — as far as I could tell.”
Baldwin contrasted them with actors like Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson and especially Sidney Poitier, whose performances often moved “miraculously beyond the confines of the script” and offered more realistic representations of black life that they “smuggled like contraband in a maudlin tale.”
Crediting Baldwin as the writer of “I Am Not Your Negro” might be something he would have appreciated. Despite his critique of Hollywood, Baldwin moved to Los Angeles in 1968 to write a screenplay about Malcolm X. The experience was frustrating. Baldwin’s relationship with Columbia Pictures became so strained after the studio hired Arnold Perl to rewrite major sections of the script that Baldwin abandoned the project.
Baldwin later reflected, “The adventure remained very painfully in my mind, and indeed, was to shed a certain light for me on the adventure occurring through the American looking-glass.” Baldwin would publish his script as “One Day When I Was Lost” in 1972, but Perl’s version was sold to Warner Bros. and eventually became the basis for Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, “Malcolm X.” Keeping in the spirit of Baldwin’s rejection of that script, his estate refused to put his name on the film’s credits.
“Baldwin’s script experimented with the genre of the biopic,” said Brian Norman, a professor of English at Loyola University Maryland who has written about the screenplay. “He gave a strangely disconnected, nonchronological vision of Malcolm X as endlessly reinventing himself, as being ever-present and ever relevant.“
And this is one of the greatest gifts Mr. Peck’s film gives back to Baldwin and to a contemporary audience — “I Am Not Your Negro” aims to approximate Baldwin’s aesthetic style and critical sensibility in cinematic form. The result is both a profound meditation on Baldwin’s vision and a metahistory of American movies that demands that we all become witnesses who choose to either end American racism or be swallowed up whole.
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