“…The general reaction to famous people who hold difficult opinions is that they can’t really mean it. It’s considered, generally, to be merely an astute way of attracting public attention, a way of making oneself interesting…”- James Baldwin, No Name in The Street
James Baldwin was more than a writer and activist; he was a complex man, with complex views. But he was honest, he was empathetic, and he saw the world in a way that others, particularly white people, may not have wanted to see it. He was also a witness to the lives, works, and deaths of three extraordinary men: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. With the fragments of work Baldwin left behind after his death in 1987, primarily from a 30-page unfinished manuscript titled Remember This House, director Raoul Peck gives us a chance to sit in Baldwin’s seat and view the world and these losses through his lens in I Am Not Your Negro.
I Am Not Your Negro dissects the issues of race in America in the 1960s, and pushes the audience to see how relevant this history still is today through the weaving in of footage and images of contemporary activisms and violence against African American communities. Peck reminds us how young Malcolm X, MLK, and Medgar Evers were when they rose to prominence in the Black civil rights movement, and calls us to reflect on the fact that they were still in their prime when they died fighting a war that activists are still fighting today. America is decades older, and yet the film gives us the eerie sense the nation has been standing in the same spot for over fifty years. In the documentary, Baldwin discusses his hurt when watching the reaction to integration in schools, his childhood influences, the first time he meets each of the activists the film features, the stances of these activists and how they treated people. Baldwin’s words make famous events and famous people, himself included, very human. When it comes to legacy and fame, we often forget that these men and women were just like us. They had families, they didn’t always agree, and as they grew they changed. That is a major reason why I Am Not Your Negro is essential, especially now, to view.
Martin, Medgar and Malcom did not agree on everything, and Baldwin may not always have agreed with them. But all four men had the same goals: hearing someone explain this firsthand is important since their legacies are now interpreted differently. Interestingly enough, the aftermath of their deaths is sometimes lost in a public space, where the effects it had on those close to them, such as family and their (often equally famous) peers, are obscured. Although they died as public figures, touching the lives of millions, the impact of their deaths on friends such as Baldwin, their young children, and young wives who had to continue on in the movement regardless of their pain, is also a shadowed piece of history. The Baldwin of Peck’s film doesn’t seem optimistic. Instead, he seems weary. He doesn’t sound hopeful that much change is on the horizon, and with Peck’s choice to integrate flashes of recently murdered African American men, women, and children along with protest footage, viewers also see that even Baldwin’s weariness was, in a sense, visionary.
The effects of fame on truth, a theme that Baldwin brings to the light in a way only he could as a novelist and a survivor of that violent epoch, lingers in the documentary. The fact that none of the three actually got the chance to reach their full potential as men and activists means that their legacy is digested through the lens of fame; we cannot know how their views or goals might have changed as they were growing as people. Even now, some activists’ goals are misinterpreted as need for attention rather than acknowledged for the work that they actually want to get done. I Am Not Your Negro exposes our attraction to the things we want to see instead of what is actually there. Representing Baldwin through his own unfinished work, Peck reminds us that we may never know all that Baldwin wanted us to get from it. It’s no wonder that everyone in the theater sits for a while before getting up to leave once the credits roll and the lights come up. It’s a lot to process now; removing the fame and filling in half stories with new pieces, different context, the light of the present. No longer did we see these remarkable men as civil rights’ activists we learned about in Social Studies and History classes, in clips and phrases of famous speeches and famous images; instead, we saw husbands, fathers, and friends; broken hearts, unfinished works, dreams unrealized, with so much to do in such little time and no way of seeing their work come full circle.