The words popped! Sitting at the E Street Cinema, it seemed as if I were hearing a devastatingly spot-on response to life in the United States at the dawn of the Trump era: where former Breitbart News chair and white nationalist Stephen K. Bannon is the president’s chief strategist; people of color are unjustly shot by police; and Hollywood, despite some Oscar noms this season, is still way too white.
Heroes, as far as I could see, were white – and not merely because of the movies, but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.
There are days when I wonder, how precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how are you going to communicate to the vast heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?
Yet these incisive, viscerally true, gut-wrenching words were spoken by novelist, playwright, essayist and one of the most important mid-century public intellectuals, James Baldwin in the searing new Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck. (The Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 26.)
Baldwin, an African American, who was born in Harlem and lived much of his life in France, died at age 63 in 1987. Though he chafed at labels, Baldwin spoke and wrote openly about same-sex love. His 1956 novel “Giovanni’s Room” was one of the first novels (other than pulp fiction) to feature male characters loving other men.
He knew civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, all of whom were murdered. In 1979, Baldwin wrote a 30-page letter to his agent describing how he wanted to write a book titled “Remember This House” of his reflections on these men and his friendships with them. (Only 30 pages of the book were finished.) Using Baldwin’s notes for the book and his essays, clips from his TV interviews and news reports of the 1960s civil rights movement, Peck makes you feel as if you’re inside Baldwin’s head. Hearing his voice and seeing his elegant presence, juxtaposed with images from Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, you feel as if Baldwin is speaking directly to you right now – in 2017. Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words when Baldwin isn’t talking.
I can’t speak to how people of color might feel about “I Am Not Your Negro.” As a white woman, I found this 93-minute movie to be stunning. The documentary brings you face-to-face with the cruelty and discrimination that black people encountered in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1950s, Baldwin decided that he should leave Paris and return to the United States after he saw a photo of Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old black student entering a newly integrated school, Harry Harding High School, in Charlotte, N.C. White people spat and hurled epithets at her as she went into the school. “It made me ashamed,” Baldwin said, “some one of us should have been there with her.”
It’s easy for me to feel that I’d never act in such a hateful way. Yet, the film’s images of Ferguson cut through my complacent superiority to my white privilege.
I thought I was an astute pop culture observer until I heard Baldwin talk about how Hollywood has shaped our cultural perceptions. “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians,” he said, “and, although, you’re rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians is you.”
Then there is the 1966 FBI memo on Baldwin. “It has been heard that Baldwin may be a homosexual,” it says, “and he appeared as if he may be one.”
Baldwin wrote and spoke brilliantly, boldly and bravely about race, pop culture and sexuality. In an era where bigotry of all kinds is rising, let’s follow his example.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.