Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Garden of Shame: Are We Ready Yet for James Baldwin?

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

         The film has no narrator. At times actor Samuel L. Jackson speaks words that American writer James Baldwin wrote. Sometimes Baldwin is seen on screen speaking on talk shows, at a Cambridge, England debate, or in brief clips from interviews given decades ago.
            The film "I Am Not Your Negro" by Raoul Peck is not 'about' the life or work of James Baldwin, his life, his autobiography, his literary oeuvre.
             It's not a biopic.
            It's about what he said. What he said about America.
            Baldwin's words are more relevant, and revelatory, than ever. Reviewer Nicolas Rapold offers the best definition I've seen of this film: a "masterfully eloquent living essay on race and America."
            The title "I Am Not Your Negro"is something Baldwin said. Meaning, I take it, that neither he, nor any other person of color, of African ancestry, is to be seen from "your" perspective. Which is to say that white people invented the 'negro': that there is no such thing as a 'negro' without a white person to see a black one as the "other."
            Baldwin -- who was born in Harlem in 1924 and died in 1987 -- sees himself, as the film unquestionably demonstrates, as an "American."
            The movie asks us -- through the accumulation of images rather than bald statement -- where does all this hate from other Americans, the white ones, for people like Baldwin, come from?
            Since seeing this film I've been reminding myself of the dirty secret that has come to light so frequently in recent years: That American police shoot, kill, and otherwise mistreat African Americans as they would not dream of treating anyone else. And that America's public officials, its governing establishment, its courts, its mayors, its police chiefs, back them up -- no matter what they do. (With some exceptions, I suppose. But after the cavalcade of visually documented horrors that flash by in "I Am Not Your Negro" it's hard to remember them.)
            That could be us, could be me, white people think when some pathetic creature in a uniform explains why he had to kill an unarmed black man. A dirty little thing in our conscience offers us the answer: we don't really think these people are human, do we?
            We are afraid, we think. And we think we are right to be afraid.
            As another of the film's recent reviewers (Kenneth Turan in the "LA Times") pointed out, the film's message, insofar as it can be reduced, is encapsulated in its first few minutes.
            No narrative is offered. No titles tell you what you are seeing, or when, or the names of the images on the screen.
            If you are old enough to recognize the faces, you know that we're seeing footage from the "Dick Cavett Show." A liberal's show. The year (a review tells me) is 1968.
            The wave of the "Civil Rights Era," the famous demonstrations, the landmark federal laws, has crested by 1968 and is on the way down, though that may not be obvious at the time. But that's the background, the legal gains of the Civil Rights era, for Cavett's question:
“Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic — it’s getting so much better.”
            As a look of almost horror-movie 'weariness' overtakes his features  -- and Baldwin's facial expressions can be as eloquent as his words -- he replies, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”
            What appears to be happening, we learn from a brief excerpt Baldwin's appearance at another public forum is that white Americans are allowing themselves to become “moral monsters” through unexamined bigotry.
            We see expressions of hatred, and hateful acts, more intense than we were allowed to see on TV or in film footage back in the sixties. The prospect of a female African American teenager integrating a high school turns white protestors into a mass of seething devils. They look, and behave, like something out of Bosch's medieval depictions of hell.
            These images are intercut with words from others, from Baldwin, from newscasters, white racists, politicians, exclamations of grief from the loved ones of victims. The film moves very fast, without regard to obvious chronology, narrative line, plot, or expository framework. It offers footage from the Civil Rights era; footage from the Ferguson demonstrations. No one is telling you how, but you know, you feel, how it all fits together. It's the densest hour and a half I can recall experiencing, on film or anywhere else.
            When you try to use words afterwards to explain its effect, you come up with something like this:
            Black Americans are not a faction, a racial group, or a census demographic, and they're certainly not a monolithic 'community.' They are Americans. You can't separate them out; they don't exist anywhere but here.
            And America is not America apart from them. And yet, white Americans can't seem to accept who we are as Americans. And that failure is killing us.