A video recently went viral, featuring Janelle Monáe, Chris Rock, and Yara Shahidi reciting the words of an author before urging viewers to “read James Baldwin, know your Baldwin, study your Baldwin”. It’s a powerful video – a call to arms – viewed over 7 million times. But who exactly is James Baldwin?
If he wasn’t on your school curriculum, you may not know much about the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic. Born in New York City in 1924, Baldwin was a gay black man living in an America he didn’t feel welcome in. He moved to Paris aged 24, in part to distance himself in order to write, and in part out of a necessity to not succumb to the USA’s bleak race tensions. So why, now, are celebrities and activists alike encouraging you to read his work?
I Am Not Your Negro, an Oscar-nominated documentary (it lost out to O.J: Made In America, as did Ava DuVernay’s incredible 13th,) directed by the Haitian filmmaker and political activist Raoul Peck is hitting UK cinemas on 7th April. Peck was given unprecedented access to Baldwin’s works, and it brilliantly brings to life his unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, in which he maps America’s violent race relations through the lives and deaths of his three friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Baldwin was as famous for his oration as his essays, and the film expertly sews together Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s words, archival video interviews with the author, and turbulent footage of police and protesters clashing during both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and today’s Black Lives Matter marches. We see rousing and vital speeches by the three men, including Martin Luther King Jr speaking at the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955/56, which was sparked by Rosa Parks famously refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. By looking through Baldwin’s eyes at the activism of these three men, we see how varied and complex their ideologies were (albeit with a united aim of justice), and how frighteningly unchanged America is today.
The opening scene of the documentary shows Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. Cavett asks the author, “why aren't black people optimistic?” He breezily notes the professional fields that black people now occupy: politics, sports, “even the ultimate accolade of TV commercials”. “Is it at once getting much better and still hopeless?” You could argue that the same question is being asked by white people today: when Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight wins Best Picture, and Beyoncé's masterpiece Lemonade brings black feminism to a wider audience, why aren’t black people more optimistic, satisfied even?
Peck dismisses this superficiality. “Art has a role to play, but I came to cinema through politics. I believe real change comes from a shift in power. Everything else is cosmetic. The whole discussion around #OscarsSoWhite is a side game. I know a lot of those filmmakers, including Barry Jenkins, and what it took to make those films, but the real discussion is the way the power is shared or not.” Peck may be speaking here about who gives the greenlight on films, the gatekeepers who hold the power to diversify what we see on screen, but his hour-and-a-half film shows exactly why there isn’t optimism in the wider world too.
“Nothing has changed. Look at the statistics: how many black people are in prison?” According to the NAAPC, an American civil rights organisation, 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated in the US are African Americans. “How many drug-related black arrests are there?” ACLU reports that black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white people, despite similar rates of use. “What are the housing and unemployment situations? What are the schools like in poor and black neighbourhoods? Who owns the power in America?” he asks. “In those terms, nothing has changed. I think there’s a reason why phrases that Baldwin wrote then sound so real today.”
In a clip from the TV show Florida Forum in 1963, we see Baldwin say, “Most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered, I’m sure they have nothing against negroes. That’s really not the question. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance - you don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.” It’s a tough watch, with scenes from history that have been largely left out of America’s mainstream historical narrative, like footage of the beating of Rodney King by the LA Police Department in 1991. You think of the deaths of Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, which have scarred this decade, and - if they weren’t already - become more pronounced when we are taken through the five years in which Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr were murdered.
But that is exactly the point. It’s hard to watch, this injustice, this truth. “We have succumb to intellectual gentrification,” Peck tells me. “We are perfect consumers, fed everyday through TV and iPhone screens. We’ve lost our relationship with real life.” This, our liberal bubble, our turn-a-blind-eye attitude, is the much-argued reason behind the success of Trump, of Brexit, and the rise of fascism in Europe. And through I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s words jolt you back to life. His searing observations, brilliant witticisms, and poetic turn of phrase cut through white denial and fragility, the notion that ‘things aren’t that bad anymore’; there’s no looking away.
The film has received critical acclaim, but Peck notes the personal reactions he’s seen: “A 60-year-old woman in Stockholm said to me, ‘I was sleeping all those years, and now I’m awake. It’s time to do something’.” So, yes, now is the time to read James Baldwin, know your Baldwin, study your Baldwin. Peck believes that, in the way the author encouraged him to discover his own narrative, he can with others too. “I think he can help a younger generation - we have no way of discerning what is important, superficial, or even what is true. Baldwin forces you to come back to life, with your two feet on the ground.”
I Am Not Your Negro is released in UK cinemas on 7th April.