“Is She Your Negro?”
Ellen C. Scott (UCLA)
For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
— James Baldwin, Open Letter to Angela Davis, November 19, 1970.
Sandra Bland. Ramarley Graham. Walter Scott. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Laquan McDonald. Renisha McBride. Oscar Grant. Anthony Lamar Smith.
The human response to this list turned anthem should be “Never forget” and “Never again.” But the U.S. justice system has given us an absurd and enraging stream of non-trials or non-indictments for the white officers who have murdered these unarmed citizens. This history of neglect, passivity, acceptance, and even applause in the face of the public murder of Black men is what is most centrally and acerbically revealed in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a film based on the words of James Baldwin. However, the more indirect logic of the destruction of Black women remains firmly at the margins.
Peck’s film innovates in challenging the documentary’s show-and-tell logic. Like Edward Bland in The Cry of Jazz (1959) and Yance Ford in Strong Island (2017), Peck experiments with the relationship between documentary, personal narrative, and fiction and loosens the relationship between the sound and image track. By linking Baldwin’s words to images, both historical and contemporary, that do far more than illustrate, Peck makes room for a personal observational style—or even a kind of unconscious—to usurp documentary’s narrative order. For instance, Peck pairs Baldwin’s words about the moral emptiness of American prosperity with a Technicolor sequence of pristine, fanciful, white picnic-goers in the musical The Pajama Game (1957). This re-appropriation of Hollywood’s “decent” pleasures follows the logic if not always the direct line of Baldwin’s critical readings of American film images in The Devil Finds Work. In doing so, Peck uses film, the medium historically most responsible for spinning the white fantasy of disconnection from Black people, as an avenue to critique that very fantasy.
The film is strongest in its acidic, urgent commentary on America’s denial pathology. This commentary has lost none of its power as America has lost none of its white supremacy. As Richard Wright put it, and Peck and Baldwin reveal, “there is no Negro problem in the United States; only a white problem. Whites created it and whites maintain it.” Baldwin not only makes whiteness visible but demonstrates its peculiarity, its obsessions and its perversities. He does this not jeeringly but to show that white absurdities as much as democracy define America. Peck’s images bring the inane violence of white “civilization” into poetic relief.
James Baldwin was a national treasure. Against the tide of white intellectual bombast he spit truth that still sizzles, as we see on Peck’s screen. It corrodes the American fantasy about a self-proclaimed innocence that has compromised its moral soul and made room for an unthinkable neglect. But Baldwin’s project is, like all intellectual endeavors, limited. Rather than examining or surmounting these limitations, Peck risks amplifying them. Peck bases his film on Baldwin’s writings on the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Laudably, Peck refuses to reduce the film to being about a single heroic man, whether Baldwin, Malcolm, Medgar or Martin, eschewing the documentary genre’s paean modality that mystifies as it uplifts the memories of Black leaders. Instead Peck looks at how these men, with all their differences, are collapsed into the target-bearing mold of the Black male figure. However, the film’s construction of “the Negro,” like Baldwin’s and Fanon’s, is essentially and by default male. The anachronism of this construction is something that Peck does not probe or question. I felt this most in Peck’s half-hearted inclusion of Lorraine Hansberry, who, dead at 34, was arguably victim of just the kind of everyday racism that Black women experience and that is so often ignored. Did Peck marginalize Hansberry because unlike Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar, she was not assassinated? Sandra Bland. Lorraine Hansberry. Ella Baker. Eslanda Robeson. Henrietta Lacks. Was there not, in these women’s lives, rebellion, and undoing, a pattern distinct from that of Malcolm, Martin and Medgar, but also distinctly “Negro”?
Hansberry reminds me of the gendered nature of the racializing project and the specific kinds of deadly negligence—an often intimate, close-range, private negligence—that Black women have historically experienced. While it may be said that this was not Baldwin’s project, it is up to Peck, the contemporary interpreter, to ask, “why not?” That Peck updates Baldwin’s vision in other ways, suturing Baldwin’s words to images of Ferguson protestors, makes his gender vacuum more puzzling. Gender critique is not expendable. The project of building “a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression,” in the words of the Combahee River Collective, requires understanding the systematic entwining of race, class, gender, sexuality, and power because “if they take you in the morning” through the door of racialization, “they will be coming for us at night” through the door of misogyny. And we must not forget that Black women really were silenced within 1960s freedom struggles. The absence of Black women in Peck’s film comes into striking relief when it is considered alongside Whose Streets? (2017), Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s documentary about Ferguson in which the intimate and the public life of activism is revealed in a young, queer mother of color or Damani Baker’s House on Coco Road in which Black radical activism is passed down from mother to son.
In our openly white supremacist political climate, this critique may seem like splitting hairs and indeed I still think the film very powerful. But we need keep in sight the progress we had made in understanding gender and sexuality established before the 2016 election was lost. To forget these gains amidst the worst kind of political distraction would be to truly lose ground. Thus while Peck’s documentary reveals white privilege’s relentless impassivity to Black suffering and white supremacy’s everyday logic in supermarkets, the suburban Chevy, or on the white picnic, the neglect of black women seems at best a blind spot and at worst a carryover from the 1960s’ gender-segregated construction of the “Negro.” In a film that centers on the eviscerating disregard that the privileged wield against the less visible, the irony of this absence is worth noting. Still, formally and in its content, Peck’s film is perhaps the best contemporary example of film used as a medium to combat itself—of a fantasy medium used to undermine fantasy.
“Baldwin’s Embodied Absence”
Laura Rascaroli (University College Cork)
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.
— James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s film is important because it is a political film that makes statements about history — both the history of the Negro in America, and the history of America, which, as James Baldwin remarks, are one and the same. It does so in the way the cinema is best adapted to do: through story. I Am Not Your Negro takes thirty unfinished, unpublished pages by Baldwin — dead letter — and turns them into a living and breathing story, by constructing a narrator, a character, a setting, an atmosphere, a point of view. In Baldwin’s own words, it is not a pretty story. Aesthetically, however, it’s a great story. It mobilizes beauty in compelling ways — the beauty of voice, eloquence, and intelligence, the beauty of the body and of the world — and it makes it clash dramatically with ugly images of ignorance, abuse, hatred, violence, and murder. Do aesthetically told stories (and aesthetically told documentaries) make more powerful political statements on history?
The aesthetic ideology of a Doris Day film is the same as that of films from Peking of five years ago.
— Jean-Luc Godard, presenting La Chinoise at the 28th Venice Film Festival
Aesthetics is, of course, always ideological. The aesthetic ideology of I Am Not Your Negro is not that of a “Doris Day film” — or of all the films that, as Godard denounced in 1967, sought and failed to find a voice distinct from Hollywood. I Am Not Your Negro is beautifully told, but is not a homogeneous text that smoothes over the cracks to produce persuasive documentary wholeness. It fights the invisibility of history (in film) precisely by making the cracks visible. It brings the untold story of America to the surface, and to the present day, as it retells the history of American cinema. And it does so not by way of illustration, of talking heads and B-rolls, but through embodiment. I Am Not Your Negro gives Baldwin the grain of a voice. The dual grain of Baldwin’s voice in the film — with its (fictional, although fact-based) intimate address to the audience, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, alternating with the (documentary) eloquence of Baldwin’s filmed public performances — is the key aesthetic/ideological cypher of the film. Not because it triggers audience empathy, but because it creates a filmic body, at once real and imaginary, substantial and absent, with a crack in between. This exhibited crack is at the core of the film’s denunciation of false images that do not match the reality of bodies.
And in the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.
— James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
I Am Not Your Negro’s aesthetics unmask Hollywood cinema as a vacant looking glass, the site of misrecognition, reflecting back the nation’s criminal blindness. Baldwin’s present/absent body at once denounces the lack of real images of blacks and obstinately refuses to reflect back the reassuring persona of the Negro. Exploiting the power of the screen as a compelling site of identification, James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro is offered to us, alternately, as filmic character and documentary persona, screen image and embodied conscience, Negro and Man. It is the constant movement between these contradictory positions that exposes the standard regime of misrecognition in media-fabricated images. This is nowhere more powerful than in the last sequence, in which Baldwin invites white people to answer the question “why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place.” The archival images we see, shot in close-up — with their radical flatness compounded by the abstraction of the black background and the central fixity of the camera, the swirls of cigarette smoke revealing the gap between lens and profilmic — are documentary but could just as easily be fiction, a Godardian mise en scène. Alternating between compelling filmic image and truthful documentary body, Baldwin looks straight into the lens, and denies being a nigger. Occupying the whole of the screen, and coinciding with it, he holds up a mirror to the audience.