Raoul Peck takes a unique approach to documenting the meditations of the late Harlem-born author James Baldwin, who lived as an expatriate in Paris for most of his adult life. Peck gives thirty pages of the writer’s observations over to the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson. He then inter-splices newsreel footage from 1950s and 60s Civil Rights marches, sit-ins and desegregation actions, with more recent grisly police brutality captures in Ferguson, Missouri, and other U.S. cities, where police in state-of-the- “art” riot gear attack Black protesters.
After half a century or more of enactment of the porous protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, Jackson’s voice has Baldwin unpacking the subtext of American History. “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro, but what happens to this country,” says Baldwin. Quoting the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, he says, “I’m very worried about a culture that produced a photo of a white cop who is standing on the neck of a Black girl.”
Baldwin’s impeachment of U.S. culture burns through celluloid when he charges Hollywood with having mythologized race to rationalize bewildering inequalities. He cites the Western film genre as an example of narratives meant to glorify the wholesale massacre of Native Americans while maintaining the fiction that no crime was ever committed. Baldwin claims that the white revolutionary is far more romantic than the black one, because of the manifest euphoria that inflates his or her sense of purpose. By contrast, says Baldwin, “A Black John Wayne would be a raving maniac, not an eccentric patriot.”
The legends constructed in Hollywood, by the big business press, and in our culture by academicians, destroy the sense of reality experienced by the subjugated, and thereby place a big question mark over the goals pursued by those who do the subjugating. From Baldwin’s perspective, we live in a society that gaslights itself for the sake of keeping Black people down. For him, the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans shot down on his carport, while in the process of investigating the murder of another Black man, gives credence to this notion. If those in power don’t cover their tracks, the risk that the myth of the menace of Negritude will shatter becomes too great, and since Blacks aren’t picking cotton any more, what use does society have for its “niggers,” Baldwin asks. Why not simply murder them? “When you’re a child, you assume you’re white—until you look in the mirror and see that you’re not. In much the same way, it came as a great shock that the Indians they were killing in that movie were you!” The conclusions Baldwin drew drove him to depart New York for Paris in 1946.
Baldwin shines a light on the martyrdom of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, whose lives, along with Evers’ he says, “bang against each other to reveal a story.” All three were not only assassinated before they reached the age of 40, but their names, like Baldwin’s showed up prominently in the FBI COINTELPRO documents released many years later, as a result of the 1973 Watergate scandal. COINTELPRO implicated involvement by the U.S. government in the King and Malcolm X assassination plots. He quotes King’s 1955 declaration, offered when the Civil Rights leader was 26 years old that, “Negroes have not a right but a duty to be free.” For Baldwin, King’s words support his own belief that “The future of the Negro in this country is as bright or dark as the future of this country.”
This collection of considerations, while impressive for its both stark and subtle relevance for today, still bears the yellowed-edged distress of its own history. Much of what Baldwin reflects came before affirmative action registered its impact in the entrance of substantial numbers of Blacks into previously inaccessible blue collar jobs, pulpit positions in academia, or as factotums in the meritocracy that had not yet supplanted direct rule by the hereditary blue blood ruling class. Nor had vast waves of immigration from Central America, or the Pacific Rim, changed the composition of the working class, and new generations enrolling in institutions of higher learning. So while the Civil Rights song lyrics, “Black and white together, we shall not be moved,” seem dated and almost naïve about how pragmatically the captains of capital can recast the color scheme of those whom they oppress and exploit, still the signposts Baldwin points to, and the visuals Peck brings, very much resonate in the present tense.
Baldwin credits Orilla “Bill” Miller, his elementary school teacher with introducing him to the world of books. She taught him about fascism in Germany, the history of Ethiopia and opened up vistas that allowed him to probe the real story of the Americas and the hypocrisy that was its wet nurse. Were it not for her, Baldwin says, he might have had no reason not to hate Caucasians, though he may have “wanted to murder one or two.” In the final analysis, he suspected that they acted as they did not because of their race, but for some other reason, and he was determined to learn what it was.
Regarding leadership, alliances, and organizing strategies, Baldwin did not believe that all white people were devils, as the Nation of Islam preached, nor that Christians lived by the love their religion advocated. He could not bring himself to join the NAACP because of the class illusions that organization promulgated, which “repelled a shoe-shine boy like me,” said Baldwin. He saw himself primarily as a witness who needed “to move as largely and freely as possible to write and get out the story.” He was concerned that “white people don’t want to believe that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over country.” He quotes Malcom X: “We need an organization that no one downtown loves.”
Of whites’ conception of Black people, Baldwin says, “They require my captivity as well as their own. Their hostility to how they see liberals who ‘love the little nigger kids, love the little nigger kids,’ is, ‘Who loved me?’” Meanwhile, Black people growing up and confronted with the largely unloved population of white people, don’t hate the white man, so much as they just want him to get out of their way. In Baldwin’s view, hatred of blacks issues from of a constant terror of this entity—the Negro-or “the nigger”- that lives only in the white man’s mind.
He delves into the question of race and sexuality—a minefield for America, he believes. Though they are clearly handsome and attractive men, no film director dared to present Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier as sex symbols because of the implications for white society. He relates the story of having been with a white woman in an apartment, and tells how they had to leave separately in order to go ahead with their plans for the day. “In America, a white woman is safer walking the streets without a Black man accompanying her than with one.” He explains that it’s a society that prefers fantasy to a truthful recreation of experience in order to keep the notion alive that “one ninth of the population is inferior to you.”
“When a white man says give me liberty or give me death, everyone applauds. When a Black man says the same thing, he has to be gotten rid of. We Americans are trapped between what we want to be and what we are. The story of the Negro in America is the Story of America. It will be bloody; it will be hard.” According to Baldwin, miscalculation based on the formula that maintains this imbalance can be deadly, even though the formula itself is aberrant. White is a metaphor for power, “little more than shorthand for describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”
If you’re a pessimist, muses Baldwin, human life is an academic matter. “I’m an optimist because I’m alive. So I [optimistically] ask, ‘Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place?’. Find out why you invented the nigger. The future of this country depends on the answer to this question.”