Raoul Peck''s documentary film, "I Am Not Your Negro," is a brilliant, absorbing and stirring vision of James Baldwin as public civil rights advocate, crucial spokesperson for African Americans in a revolutionary time, a profound and eloquent voice that speaks as...
Raoul Peck''s documentary film, "I Am Not Your Negro," is a brilliant, absorbing and stirring vision of James Baldwin as public civil rights advocate, crucial spokesperson for African Americans in a revolutionary time, a profound and eloquent voice that speaks as clearly to this historical moment as it did to the one that it originally addressed. This is a truly outstanding film, timeless in its relevance and also in its art, that I intend to share with my students for as many years to come as I am blessed to enjoy. In this particular historical moment, "I Am Not Your Negro" is absolutely necessary, irreplaceable, inimitable. With my friend, Craig Werner, the brilliant literary scholar, music critic, and cultural historian, I watched this film twice in two days and ruminated over it for much longer than it took to watch it. The importance of this book by the same title is that it allows us to examine the film and explore Baldwin''s political voice more closely, checking to make sure we caught what was said, dwelling upon crucial moments and passages whose depth and complexity reward a more deliberate look. The film, however, is what really matters.
My conversations with Werner, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I taught for a decade, were illuminated by Ed Pavlic''s 2015 book, Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners and other essays by this gifted poet and literary scholar. It is hard to separate Pavlic''s thought from the sparks that flew in our conversations, but it is impossible to understand them without him, either. In order to fully appreciate the film''s accomplishments, serious viewers need to remember that this public and overtly political James Baldwin that Peck holds up in the film is not the only Baldwin that lived. Pavlic makes this point by differentiating between "the public James Baldwin," whom we meet here in all his power, and "the personal Jimmy Baldwin," friend, lover, raconteur among the people of the night, and "Jamie," the son and the brother, who used this name when he signed the dozens and dozens of letters that he wrote to his beloved brother David. Peck paints the public and political Baldwin, the Baldwin of his incredible speeches, so well selected and framed in "I Am Not Your Negro," who is essentially the same voice in much of his nonfiction essays, but there are other Baldwins to explore, the James Baldwin of his novels, the Jimmy Baldwin of his personal life, and the Jamie of his familial devotion. According to Pavlic, there is also a fourth Baldwin, and I think Peck captures this one quite well, too, which is "an unnamed writer to translated himself into a kind of universal human kin."
"I Am Not Your Negro," both the film and this helpful book, preserves and brings to a needy and broken world the eloquence of one of its profound geniuses, whose genius, in T.S. Eliot''s definition of genius, comes from our history''s most powerful expressive culture and theological vision, a poetic genius that is ever sharper the closer it stands to the heart of that tradition, a moral visionary that "left the church to preach the gospel," as Baldwin said, a universal voice grounded in love, even when it is acerbic, slashing and surgically critical, when it is redemptive gospel, when it is unflinching blues, and when it is ingenious jazz. We all owe Raoul Peck an enormous debt of gratitude, and I feel that very deeply.