Reviving James Baldwin and Repeopling the Civil Rights Movement: Raoul Peck’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

William J. Maxwell is a professor of English and African and African-American studies.

Despite his burial on December 8, 1987, James Baldwin often looks like today’s most vital new African-American author. Raoul Peck’s extraordinary film I Am Not Your Negro explains why Baldwin’s almost impossible eloquence, a product of the 20th century, has returned, unbowed and unwrinkled, in the 21st.

Interspersing the contemporary with the historical, Peck's documentary fortifies James Baldwin's position as the resurrected muse of the Black Lives Matter movement, Maxwell says.

The most obvious reason for Baldwin’s rebirth is the renewed timeliness of his political vision, illustrated in Peck’s documentary by quick cutting between iconic images of brutalized civil rights protestors and rough footage of Ferguson’s gas guns and riot shields. With these uncomfortable visual rhymes linking black struggle in the 1960s and the 2010s, I Am Not Your Negro underlines Baldwin’s status as the resurrected muse of Black Lives Matter (BLM).

As Peck knows, it’s Baldwin’s good name and impassioned queer fatherhood that young BLM intellectuals invoke in Twitter handles such as @SonofBaldwin and @Flames_Baldwin. It’s Baldwin’s distilled social wisdom, often mined from his heated Black Power-era interviews, that fortifies these intellectuals’ posts and Tweets. (See, for instance, the viral social-media resharing of Baldwin’s correction of an Esquire magazine reporter back in 1968: “I object to the term ‘looters’ because I wonder who is looting whom, baby.”) And it’s Baldwin’s longer, formal prose that’s recommended by BLM readers for its uncanny relevance, its tight fit with present emergencies that, according to rapper-activist Ryan Dalton, “says a lot about [Baldwin’s] writing, but also about how little progress we’ve made.”

As Peck’s film also knows, however, Baldwin is back in style because the grain and scope of his voice is strange as well as familiar. On the one hand, Baldwin’s expression is made to order for the age of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: the blend of political prophecy and actorly self-exposure in nearly all of his essays anticipates the very 21st-century job description of the selfless freedom fighter/self-documenting social media star. On the other hand, the best of Baldwin’s prose is essentially un-tweetable. His long and gracefully overstuffed sentences, studded with semi-colons and immersed in the syntax of two royal Jameses, King and Henry, can’t help but confirm his share of historical remoteness. Tweet this, the prolific Baldwin sentence seems to say, as in this stem-winder from “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” the 1949 attack on the ferocious schmaltziness of social protest fiction that made Baldwin’s name on both sides of the Atlantic: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of a secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

Digging up and digitally clarifying tapes of Baldwin’s most powerful interviews, I Am Not Your Negro lingers over the spoken equivalent of such lavish, shape-shifting sentences. Peck makes us stretch our ears as Baldwin assembles long and winding reels of public argument — as he nervily outduels, for example, William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual father of modern American conservatism, at a Cambridge University debate filmed in 1965. “Until the moment comes when we the Americans, the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, that my ancestors are both black and white,” we hear Baldwin explain to a hushed roomful of British students, pausing repeatedly for emphasis and inspiration, “there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.” No small part of the drama of I Am Not Your Negro is provided by our anxiety that the next partly improvised and audaciously extended Baldwin line may seize up in mid-flight, and fail to land or connect (or provide a final orienting verb). Thanks to Peck, as well as to Baldwin, the crash never comes.

Peck’s script for I Am Not Your Negro relies on the outline of a late and unfinished Baldwin book, Remember This House, discovered after the Harlem author’s death in the south of France. The long, gripping minutes of restored Baldwin footage in Peck’s film thus alternate with passages from an obscure Baldwin manuscript read off-screen by an atypically restrained Samuel L. Jackson.

Remember This House retells the story of Baldwin’s delayed but intense involvement in the civil rights movement, focalized through the lens of three tragic assassinations: namely, the killings of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP official shot down by a white racist in his own driveway in 1963; of Malcolm X, Baldwin’s ideological adversary and surprisingly sympathetic personal friend, murdered by Nation of Islam members while speaking in Harlem in 1965; and of Martin Luther King Jr., his life stripped by a Missouri drifter in Memphis in 1968 after an evolution toward Baldwin’s flexible socialism.

Remember This House retells the story of Baldwin’s delayed but intense involvement in the civil rights movement, focalized through the lens of three tragic assassinations: namely, the killings of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP official shot down by a white racist in his own driveway in 1963; of Malcolm X, Baldwin’s ideological adversary and surprisingly sympathetic personal friend, murdered by Nation of Islam members while speaking in Harlem in 1965; and of Martin Luther King Jr., his life stripped by a Missouri drifter in Memphis in 1968 after an evolution toward Baldwin’s flexible socialism.

Employing the rescued Remember This House as his foundation allows Peck to re-member Baldwin’s body of work by adding an effectively new limb. (Among other things, I Am Not Your Negro gives life to a previously dormant Baldwin book.) Relying on Remember This House also allows Peck to recast the bitterest losses of Baldwin’s time in light of BLM’s new politics of mourning. BLM says and resays the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna and too many others to individuate the victims of state violence and to insist on the pricelessness of each and every black body. I Am Not Your Negro likewise cites and recites the famous names of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, revivifying their individual quirks through Baldwin’s intimate memories and making their premature, violent deaths hurt again, separately and humanly.

Armed with Baldwin’s words and inspiration, Peck cuts the writer’s friends and heroes free from the common cloth of civil rights martyrdom, and breathes the life of our time into three again-distinct losses (of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin rather than Evers and X and King). In the end, I Am Not Your Negro both supplies the present with a brilliantly exceptional BLM Baldwin and repeoples, beyond the blur of group history, the costly collective struggle to which he testified.