On James Baldwin and the Space Race

Have you ever watched footage from a space shuttle launch? It’s a throwaway moment in Raoul Peck’s blistering I Am Not Your Negro, included as a shorthand metaphor for American greatness. It comes as part of a larger idea that in celebrating American history, we must not erase its horrors. Here was America, a country built on enslavement and genocide, in the midst of an existential war with a foreign power and in a still more vicious fight over who got to benefit from the identity of being an American. But here was America, about to achieve a monumental human goal: to reach, almost literally, the stars.

The image that lingers with me is that of the shuttle itself. Someone painted, was presumably contracted to paint in big block letters, UNITED STATES on the side of the shuttle. I can’t get over the utter smallness in that gesture, the petty desperation to have mattered. We are the United States and we have conquered the moon. We were flying into outer space, man. Could UNITED STATES possibly have mattered less?

I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary as expansive as it is pointed, is fundamentally about American identity. Equal parts media criticism and history lesson, the film follows James Baldwin’s attempt to write the story of America through the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Its principal texts, in addition to mesmerizing clips of Baldwin on television and in debate, are the project’s unfinished manuscript and Baldwin’s letters to his editor detailing his progress. Like Baldwin’s work, the documentary flies from idea to idea in order to build to a deeper truth: namely, that the history of America is the history of its oppression.

The film hits all the notes you’d expect of it. Peck artfully juxtaposes footage of cookie-cutter ’50s and ’60s America with that of the civil rights movement without reducing either to simple stock characters. The footage of white Americans resisting civil rights — of the mobs of seething hate threatening violence on black people for the simple act of going to school, of lynchings, of the ubiquity and ferocity of white anger at integration — is gruesome. Like Baldwin, Peck doesn’t pull his punches. At one point, Peck cuts from white families enjoying suburban splendor in a ’60s US propaganda film to footage from the contemporaneous Watts uprisings. The propaganda film’s voiceover plays over the riots, espousing enthusiastically the glory of American freedom. Similarly, Rodney King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD is set to schmaltzy, old-Hollywood strings. These moments hit hard.

For much of the film, Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s manuscript over footage from classic Hollywood. At his most empathetically gravelly, Jackson imbues Baldwin’s sentences with the gravitas they deserve. I don’t think I’ve felt quite so stunned in a theater as I did hearing Jackson state Baldwin’s thesis: “The story of the Negro is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.”

The smallness of the shuttle launch has stuck with me for another reason. Perversely, seeing this great symbol of human ingenuity — one giant leap for mankind — was the first time I really understood the concept of “wall.” I’ve long heard that even Trump’s most ardent supporters realize the Beautiful Border Wall That The Mexicans Will Pay For will partially be metaphorical, but I never stopped to think about the metaphor itself. It’s not just a wall around the country keeping people out; Trump’s supporters want to build a wall around their own identity. They don’t want to make America great again. They want to protect the idea that America was once great at all and that they were part of its greatness.

Our president has dotted the world with grotesque monuments to his ego that bear his name emblazoned in gold. (He’ll probably gild TRUMP on the nuclear arsenal.) Of course he would understand his constituents’ fear — it’s what drives him, too. It’s the fear that this was all meaningless. If America isn’t the shining beacon on the hill, then the voices of the downtrodden, denied and ignored, were right all along.

Trump’s towers, like the country itself, will someday crumble. All walls come down, and a space shuttle is but a grain of sand in the ocean of the galaxy. But the symbolism matters much more than the facts, especially symbolism driven not out of ignorance but out of fear. Boasting of American greatness while ignoring the destruction it sowed only distorts reality for all involved. The oppressed are gaslit out of their own history, while the oppressors forget and deny their place in it.

Some of I Am Not Your Negro’s most gasp-inducing sequences — and there are many — do play with our perception of time and reality. A fuzz-driven ’70s guitar riff roars under footage of the March on Washington, in full color and more cracklingly, insistently alive than ever. Later, Baldwin concludes a speech at Cambridge, and Peck’s film switches from black and white to color. As the camera pans back, it reveals a crowd entirely of white people thunderously applauding him. These moments are intentionally disorienting.

I think that’s why the old Hollywood clips are so effective. Whether hagiographic depictions of the taming of the American West or glossy set-piece musicals, films define the boundaries of our shared reality and frame the stories we tell ourselves. Hollywood teaches us hero and villain just as religion does, through the use of moral fictions. Baldwin’s point is that the divisions of race and class are as artificial as the partition between the real world and the fiction of film. Whiteness is constructed, a story we tell ourselves to justify our own good fortune. In order to confront our past, Baldwin says, we must first face it. To watch Peck’s film is to be confronted, again and again, with the whitewashed brutality of American cinema. We committed systematic genocide against a people with culture and music and civilization, but John Wayne heroically killed Native American savages in the movies.

Baldwin truly is the star of I Am Not Your Negro. He writes operatic sentences that build and build to devastating crescendos and cut as if they are commentary on the America of Donald Trump and Ferguson. Peck occasionally makes the connection explicit, inter-weaving footage of the Black Lives Matter movement with that of older protests, but mostly he lets the viewer do the work of modernizing Baldwin’s ideas. It’s the type of film that will sit with you for days, weeks, even years after.

Ultimately, it shatters the myth of American-ness. Baldwin’s story is just as much an American story as, say, Bobby Kennedy’s. Baldwin points out that he has both white and black ancestors, that indeed many, if not most, white people do as well, but that he has been excluded from the spoils of American prosperity. White wealth does not account for its true economic cost because it has never accounted for the cruelty it exacted in its accumulation, for the suffering of laborers, and specifically for the suffering of black labor. White wealth is inextricable from black misery. Hinted at in the film, indeed, is a wholesale critique of capitalism itself.

A society unwilling to look at itself unflinchingly cannot rectify its past mistakes. The footage of America’s past is, quite often, uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. We are all implicated in it. Baldwin doesn’t say that we are all monsters, but that the very conceit of American society is monstrous and built on monstrous acts. Neither does Baldwin expect us to fix every problem, but simply to self-critically keep fighting for America to be better. The country has horrors in its past but it also reached for stars and touched them. Baldwin sees America for what it is, but his gift is that he still sees some of the greatness it could be.

That glimmer of hope amidst the clear-eyed sorrow is what makes Baldwin such a compelling writer and thinker. He offers an antidote to the meaningless nihilism of Trumpism and white supremacy. America is worth fighting for but only if we are honest about it. Baldwin still fights because he is an optimist. To be alive, he says, is to be an optimist.