Wrote this a while ago but someone never got around to posting it. With If Beale Street Could Talk, the first cinematic adaptation of a published James Baldwin story, currently gracing the screen, I decided now was as good a time as any to share.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is revelatory precisely because of how little it reveals, or at least how little it reveals through the traditional pathways of film documentary revelation. By this I mean two things: what it reveals about its subjects, race in America and James Baldwin (in that order), is polyphonic, and the pathways of revelation – the film’s way of revealing – are ever-elusive, fragmented, drawn as much to the fissures in documentary form as its capacity to crystallize interpretation. To explain by example, the most immediately striking aspect of Peck’s film is how it rescinds the offer to rely on institutionalized experts, arbiters of truth, synchronized appraisals of Baldwin’s value, and professorial orifices scrubbed relatively clean of the stench of action in the trenches. I Am Not Your Negro is disobedient to these edicts, more interested in Baldwin’s and its own diffuse uncertainties than in crystallizing a portrait of a man who the film appraises as more of a bricolage, even an exquisite corpse: a collection of restless energies and stylistic vulgarities pulled from many sources and idioms, a life as vigorously asymmetrical as the film’s presentation of that life.
Or, at times, its seeming willful refusal to present. Baldwin’s most disobedient gesture, and the film’s greatest consecration of Baldwin (by way of a refusal to consecrate), is how he seems to evaporate from his own picture, to resist whatever form the film might impose upon him, to retain his opacity even to the point of severe frustration. In its disownership of conventional documentary form, in fact, I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t even seem to be consciously presenting Baldwin as an enigma in the studied, now-all-too-common modernist-biography sense of willfully presenting a self-alienated human who doesn’t even know themselves or who has replaced their soul with a pictorial approximation of some concept, e.g. “celebrity”. No, the vaporous Baldwin disowns even that psychological solution for the problem of depicting character; it never sacrifices Baldwin’s prickliness to calcify him as a “concept,” nor does it necormance an image of a man who self-consciously transfigured himself into one. Sometimes even resisting edification entirely, the film fingers the subject of James Baldwin quite like Ralph Ellison’s proverbial “jagged grain”.
At times, this isn’t always to the film’s benefit, nor to its humanization. In its rejection of the default lexicon of individualized storytelling, Peck’s film is too keen to imagine its central subject as a mere avatar for whatever concerns assaulted and demarcated the boundaries of any abstract black writer-thinker in the mid-century, Baldwin as a cipher who, in his lack of specificity, functions as a fulcrum around which the filmmakers can appraise the tribulations of the black intellectual. I mentioned Ellison above, and that’s telling not only because it reveals how mid-century African-American intellectuals were students and teachers of each other, but because I Am Not Your Negro sometimes occludes Baldwin to the point where it really might have been about Ellison in the first place. (Baldwin’s homosexuality, for instance, is entirely absent).
But even if the film exhibits a proclivity for the abstract, I’m not sure it’s a weakness; that only holds if we accept that the spectrum from general to specific is linear, that it can be overlaid with “worse” to “better,” and that it is predestined to incline in one direction forever, without the possibility of doubling-back. No, I Am Not Your Negro is hardly a generalized hieroglyph for the black intellectual that sacrifices specificity in its drive for more generally-applicable solutions. In fact, in postponing the possibility of clarifying Baldwin, in resisting other voices, it never elevates Baldwin onto a pedestal as the sole arbiter of his voice, nor does the film sanctify any real general toolkit for building, or canvas for painting, the “black intellectual” writ-large. Peck’s film defies the compulsion to articulate explanations of Baldwin’s contradictions and his often amorphous, always shifting, ever-growing feelings on a concept like race that, naturally, demands readings that are as ambivalent and mutable. Rather than readings of Baldwin to pacify the knots, ellipses, and contradictions in his writing, it manifests these very knots and extends them. Baldwin’s voice does not explain him so much as open him up for interpretation, much as seeing American racism in all its unmediated and malodorous horror is not a resolution so much as a call to figure out where to go next. Hearing the man, seeing the America he was a part of, without the benefit of expert opinion or demonstrative statement, exposes ambiguities in the American experience, reminds that every sliver of knowledge gained brings us not one step closer to resolution but to many more unexplored paths and doors in desperate need of opening.
To paraphrase my opening then: what is so essential about Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is how inessential it wishes to be, by which I mean how it resists the desire to essentialize or, more importantly, to be anyone’s “essential” portrait of Baldwin. To, as it were, “own” Baldwin, to possess him by way of solidifying him so we can grasp him transparently and without resistance. Most progressive filmic narratives to tackle the race question aim to reveal, to reclaim a historical figure for black America or to explore – to reclaim – hidden figures, the same year’s film by Theodore Melfi taking up this project explicitly via its very literalized title. Without dethroning the absolute necessity of this recovery, I Am Not Your Negro ponders what other possibilities for black narrative percolate beneath the occasionally compensatory goals of reclamation. This is not to say that narratives of black success are worthless or even bad, but rather to ask what it means that we are more comfortable with films that assimilate black people into Hollywood’s governing worldview of individual achievement than with films that draw on more challenging questions about the complications, the flexibility, the porousness and prismatic qualities of black inner and exterior life.
Baldwin, like I Am Not Your Negro, understood American racism not as an aberration on the path toward teleological equality but an inextricable and foundational part of American conception of equality, possibly even the very lynchpin of historical ideas of progress. As a corollary to this, the film not only corrects dominant narratives of black inferiority and white superiority but it serves as an important and perhaps prophetic first step to reframe the terms on which we speak of inferiority and superiority altogether, asking – demonstrating – that we not think of greatness only through demonstrable achievements but through other rubrics and idioms that coruscate the frequently one-way necessity to depict only black “success” in progressive cinema. And I Am Not Your Negro is nothing if not idiomatic; it stridently refuses the clarion call of any definitive or naturalizable statements about Baldwin, instead emphasizing not his success or even his failure but his generosity, his flintiness, his compassion, his anger, his fire, his ice, his elasticity.
And, in a scintillatingly diffuse decision, pushing to the foreground his opinions of other noteworthy black figures, to narrate Baldwin inductively, as a figure who – as are we all – shaped through our conscious and unconscious receptivity to our encounters with the world, our perceiving selves sculpted by the figures who we position as receptacles for those perceptions. Because it is so humbly structured as a manifestation of Baldwin’s thoughts on and meditations provoked by the assassination of three towering African-American agitators of different flavors and intonations – Martin Luther King, Medgar Evars, and Malcolm X – I Am Not Your Negro is less a biography and more of an inter-personal rumination on the way in which events, enemies, and friends lodge in the consciousness – both national and personal – and reverberate outward in unruly directions, rhyming and amplifying and extending as they will.
For this reason, I Am Not Your Negro is less inclined to paint any portrait of mastery – either of Baldwin who masters his understanding of these three men, or of the film’s mastery over its own content – than of broken edges, burnt ends, and stretches of conflict, confrontation, and conflagration, not only in its content but the film’s very form. It expounds on the complications of race, film, and Baldwin not through clarification but through complication, which in this case is clarification. Baldwin understood the fracturing of American society just as Frantz Fanon understood the splintering of the minds of the oppressed into various selves, and I Am Not Your Negro understands that fingering the texture of either American society or Baldwin requires an aesthetic of such fragmentation. Note, for instance, how the provocative editing mirrors past and present and displaces linear time, threading a knotty non-narrative not of kinetic forward progress but contradictions in stasis and kinesis, of America taking one step forward and one step back, often with the same foot. It suggests not a particular path toward progress but a question mark, a chasm of irresolution even as it stabs out with attempts to push forward always shadowed by an undercurrent of remorse and melancholy, even confusion.
Not only is this essential to Baldwin’s view of race and American life but to his vision of storytelling, his understanding of people. Reconstituted and inspired by notes Baldwin had scribbled down for a planned book on the three aforementioned African-Americans, the film designs itself much as Baldwin arranged his own writing: in semi-loosened passages which waft outward rather than leeching all of their energy toward the answer to any one question. Even Baldwin’s autobiographical writing navigated the throngs of the self by glancing in its periphery to society, loosening the boundaries between the personal and the political, the past and the present, the introspective and the sociological. His writing on his father and his childhood, so essential to many of his political observations, glistens with unresolved energies because it observes and remarks on the people and places in his life while emphasizing their curious opacities rather than attempting to define their essence. Similarly, I Am Not Your Negro considers each of Baldwin’s three interlocutors as intangibles, collections of forever-pending rhythms in motion, sometimes stilled but never stalled, sometimes wilting but never diminished, all part of a revolutionary imaginary that is partially revolutionary because it moves in circles around the proposition of unparalleled access to any one total or prefabricated truth, permanently questioning what was, one second ago, the foremost certainty of progressivism.
Perhaps this fed into Baldwin’s lifelong resistance to institutions, his life falling into the cracks between dominant American counter-narratives, from liberal white appeals to general humanity to more radical institutional correctives like the Brotherhood of Islam, neither of which Baldwin could cosign. Perhaps he was too fluxional, too slippery, too palpably unresolved, to commit to one particular ideology or institution, which is why the film doesn’t coalesce around any one emotion or assumption that America’s monstrous racism is to be confronted through only one precise emotional state. This is because Baldwin’s critiques of America were too far-reaching and intrinsic to the nation’s fabric to be corrected through any one path or solution; instead, it required radical self-questioning and action in many directions and many forms. It also necessitated radical intersectionality, attuning to the linkages of race, gender, class, and sexuality much as with the intersections between time periods, between the mind and the body, between religion and civil society, between the cosmic and the material. Ultimately, it required digging deep into the subterranean, into the chthonic regions of society that Ralph Ellison took as his structuring principals of writing and social analysis. And it demanded an appreciation of the fact that digging deeper in an attempt to locate the roots of anything – of a person, of race, of America – only revealed a more tangled web that spread out in too many directions to always know what path was down.
As such, Baldwin was too keen a social critic to easily conclude except by way of inconclusiveness, and Peck’s film understands Baldwin’s spirit, rather than, as with most biopics, registering as a pale echo of various events in their subject’s life. I Am Not Your Negro restores indeterminacy to the black experience and counters the monolith of black achievement (which itself countered the monolith of black failure) with a glimpse of a man and a nation that is far too complicated and unresolved to be owned by the demands of success.
Which returns us to ownership. Even the title rejects a logic of ownership. Just as it wants nothing to do with personal fulfillment narratives or notions of triumphalism and overcoming that have at times been as much the bane of progressive cinema as a riposte to failure – stories that tell us where black people “are” right now – I Am Not Your Negro does not presume to gratuitously indulge any state-of-the-world homilies, to own Baldwin, to seep into every crevice of his being. To access him and defeat the mystery and irascibility and emotional overspills and cryptic recesses of one of the finest writers of any race in American history.
No simple thesis on the man, then, I Am Not Your Negro finally exhibits the sense of grim forbearance, comic frivolity, and transcendent hopefulness that might have characterized the eulogy to Baldwin that Baldwin might have written had he sat beside himself in observation, much as he does with three equally famous men here. Reverberating with his own indeterminate energies, perhaps I Am Not Your Negro, then, really is a film that isn’t so much about Baldwin as a film that is haunted by him, not a definite statement on the man but an active verb, a mind, a wondering consciousness forever at work.