I Am Not Your Negro

Only powerful photos survive time. So when we learn history, we indirectly learn that significant moments appear iconic. That there’s a visible gravitas to them. But I suspect that’s not the texture of the moment. That the moment feels improvisational, planned, somber, lighthearted, cynical, hopeful, reactionary, inevitable, focused, distracted, meandering, and driven and that’s how it’s supposed to feel. Like an Instagram photo before history and hindsight applies a filter.

Peck has debuted his 90-minute documentary on Baldwin and there are points that have stayed with me.

First, Baldwin gave his agent 30 pages of notes for a book that was to be entitled Remember This House, which was to discuss the assassinations of his friends, Martin, Malcom and Medgar and how their lives and murders banged against one another, he writes. Baldwin never finished but Peck gives Baldwin full writing credits for the documentary. It is possible Peck credits Baldwin so that the Baldwin family estate is rightly compensated but because “written by James Baldwin” is the last thing the audience sees before the documentary begins (and despite Baldwin’s death in ‘87), the effect is a conjuring of sorts — that Baldwin, as revenant, has returned to our haunted dialogue of race in America.

Second, Baldwin’s voice. If you’ve heard Baldwin speak, you know it is not a forgettable voice. It hisses and purrs and is indignant and warm. And although the words are Baldwin’s, the narration belongs to Sam Jackson, who is a fitting host for Baldwin’s spirit because the timbre of Jackson’s voice (how it has barked “yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in Hell,” or “and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger,” or “yeah, Zeus! As in, father of Apollo? Mount Olympus? Don’t fuck with me,”) has so often been synonymous with cinematic black rage. But, here, there is no caricature in Jackson’s reading. It is just appropriately the home Baldwin feels he has a room in.

Third, through archival footage of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar, white mobs, Baldwin’s recorded lectures and interviews and scenes of films referenced throughout Baldwin’s notes, the narration feels like diary entries of a scientist getting closer and closer to a cure for why whiteness created the nigger. Baldwin alludes to this: that he didn’t live in the South and was not responsible for organizing protests or creating budgets or resisting police brutality or subjecting himself to slaps, stomps and spit, but instead he arrived as an observer of America’s grotesque experiment, documenting and reporting his findings.