James Baldwin’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ – An Exercise in Reading Cinema

Of all the films released this summer, Raoul Peck’s documentary on James Baldwin- the powerfully entitled I Am Not Your Negro -was perhaps the one I was most excited for (sorry The Emoji Movie). After reading The Fire Next Time in my first year of university, I fell in love with Baldwin’s conflation of poignant political points with his utterly scathing humour, irony, and cynicism. There is a brutal craft to his writing that is as unavoidably eye-opening as it is heart-breaking, a way in which his masterfully chosen words seem to punch you in a gut that is wholly unprepared for his candid portrayal of reality. So, I was immediately interested upon seeing the documentary’s trailer as to how this mastery of the page would be transcribed onto the screen.

A film that took ten years to make, and based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, IANYN is heavily focused on Baldwin’s use of language. The footage of Baldwin speaking on numerous chat shows and performing various lectures are chosen with care. Allowed to run their full course instead of being chopped and edited into more easily-consumable chunks, the clips revel in the suspense-filled silences between Baldwin’s words, so that we can truly see the tortured mechanisms behind how those words are formed. They seem to come to him naturally and passionately, until Baldwin becomes possessed by the very force of the words he so spontaneously elicits.

But, more than this, it is the vocalisation of Baldwin’s written words, the intense link between the oral and the visual, that allows Baldwin to loom over proceedings like a spectral playwright. As a result, IANYN is a film that places an equal amount of importance on its images as its narration; a balance which, as a direct result of Baldwin’s ever more relevant manuscript, compels us to actively engage with the images rather than passively swallowing them- as we do with so much modern, commercial cinema. Because of this, you do not watch IANYN… you read it.

There are many interesting concepts concerning how to ‘read’ a film, in particular Roger Ebert’s ‘Shot at a Time’ deconstruction of cinema. But IANYN works remarkably differently. It is not a simple case of deconstructing every scene frame by frame to understand how directors use and exploit a confined visual space to achieve a higher level of meaning. Instead, Peck makes the process of reading (in this sense the golden culmination of our eyes and ears) absolutely essential to digesting his documentary. The heavy and integral narration, and the intense focus with which you have to process it, means that rather than hearing the words Samuel L. Jackson so deliciously reproduces, you begin to read them. With no subtitles, the letters of the words are signified in the images that have all to easily come to represent race relations in America: those of Jim Crow segregation, violent and non-violent protest, and police brutality.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

What IANYN does so brilliantly comes through the inherent dissonance between the spoken words and the images accompanying them. Most often, the chosen images allow Baldwin’s words to become visual. But, at certain times, they allow you to read beneath the lies of the images. This comes in the overlaying of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black, Brown and White’ over white racist advertising, the presence of idealised, white American Dream propaganda over recordings of police brutality, and the repetition of Baldwin’s bitter indictments of the America Hollywood sought to represent accompanied by the very scenes he is talking about.Police Brutality.png Underneath the presence of his words you deconstruct the images as if offered an invaluable key, an all-seeing eye that strips away the façade of ignorance and leaves an all-too legible reality underneath. The ongoing battle between the visual and the sonic in this documentary allows us to read between and through the lines of the false reality that America has exposed itself to through its Hollywood culture of American exceptionalism and white innocence. As Baldwin tells us, “movies were simply a reflection” of the US; a manipulated and controlled reflection that was fed by American delusion, and in return fed White America the required amount of fairy tale bull shit that it so readily relied upon for its daily dose of nourishing ignorance.

Sometimes the photos Peck selects with razor-sharp precision transition so quickly that you don’t have time to read them thoroughly; sometimes they linger for an uncomfortable duration so that you have more than enough time to adequately comprehend the horrors that are encased within them. Either way the images come to overwhelm you due to both their quantity and their quality, showing the barely comprehendible extent of institutionalised racism within the US- and, not to forget, throughout the globe. What IANYN allows its audience to do then, is to read history itself. Words and photos can lie, but when they are placed in revealing opposition to one another, a more difficult yet truthful narrative presents itself.

“Much better and still hopeless.” – [Dick Cavett]

Perhaps it’s useful here to draw a comparison between Baldwin and the man who voices him, Samuel L. Jackson. Both have had huge impacts on American culture, albeit for varying reasons, and although they belong to different times they still represent outspoken black voices within dominantly white fields. As expected, Jackson is excellent. Every word is dictated with a clarity and a certainty that allows no syllable to be wasted, with a barely disguised defensive hostility that borders precariously on a restrained and furious rage. But throughout the film his voice remains tired, a broken address almost verging on defeat.Baldwin.png There is no screaming or shouting, no Jules Winnfield preaching Ezekiel 25:7, no motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane; there is only despair, muttered barely louder than a fading heartbeat. It is not too dissimilar from the way Baldwin himself speaks. Every word is pointed and measured- calculated in order to achieve maximum devastation. Each carries a weight that recognises the value of words and language as the most powerful form of resistance available to the oppressed, a tradition of African American literature that began in the subversive lyrics of the slave songs and the slave narratives of those such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.

But the film never falls into the trap of making a huge deal out of its star narrator. At no point do we forget that this is Baldwin’s film. And it’s for this reason that it’s so much better to watch IANYN without subtitles. The narration is complex and demanding, and it’s far too easy to simply skim read the digitalised text in front of you. For it is the very act of simultaneously comprehending the spoken words and how they relate to their corresponding images that so dramatically reflects the experience of reading.

“The line which separates a witness from an actor, is a very thin line indeed.”

But in some respects, we do more than simply read this film… we write it. In the cinema, we are all to comfortable in our role as witnesses, but there is an extent to which the brutal and violent and shocking images before us uncover something within ourselves. This is especially the case for white audiences, as we arrive to find IANYN is as much about the role of white people in creating and maintaining, whether consciously or not, enforced systems of oppression as the resistance of African Americans to that oppression. Obligated to read our own history, we find we are not exempt from the actions of the generations that precede us- in fact, we continue to write that history today. Baldwin, as always, puts it best: “It is a problem of whether you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it”. School White Trash.pngIt is a question of whether we read the characters that the documentary presents us with as distant relics or as remarkably vivid reflections of ourselves; whether we see the footage of a defenceless Rodney King being ruthlessly beaten by cops and think “yes, but that has nothing to do with me”, or are utterly ashamed to the point where we realise the problem is everyone’s to bear. And when you read this, you realise that America’s race problem is not a black problem but a white problem as well. And when you read that, you realise that the race problem is not an American problem but a global problem. And when you read that, you read yourself.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

There is a moment, towards the end of the film, where a clip from Lover Come Back of a diamond-cladded Doris Day dreaming and sighing while clutching a bottle of Doris Daychampagne in the confines of her perfect, suburban home transitions without warning to an image of a black woman hanging, lynched, from a tree. And it is genuinely heart-stopping. In this sudden substitution of a white neck sporting a golden necklace for a black neck adorned with a rotting rope you find yourself at a moral precipice. Taken from one extreme of American civilisation to another, it comes as a great shock that these two realities can coexist and furthermore create one another- remember, white American prosperity was built on the back of slave labour. Peck teaches us to see what the movies don’t show us by reading beneath the very fabric of what they do.

And what works so brilliantly is that you can’t skip ahead. When reading a book, I often find myself taking sneaky glances further down the page, taking in key words for a clue as to where the narrative will go in order to orientate myself; the eye allows for information outside of the focal point to sink in. But in cinema – and in IANYN in particular – this is not the case. Not only is it impossible to predict what is around the corner, you cannot even see the corner coming- which makes the transitions so damn good and harrowing.I am Not a Nigger.png

James Baldwin is a difficult read at the best of times, but I Am Not Your Negro is perhaps his most tasking read, challenging you to read disembodied words that exist in the ether of Jackson’s voice and to deconstruct images that signify, complement, and lie.

Robert Cairns




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