On February 1, the first day of Black History Month, the National Museum of African American History and Culture premiered the Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which features commentary by James Baldwin. The film is a tribute to the staggering contribution of one of America’s greatest men of letters.
Director Raoul Peck spent ten years completing the film. The documentary was inspired by one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts regarding his friendships and views on three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. None of the three would live to see their 40th birthday. Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 in Jackson, Miss.; Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 in New York City; King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.
At the heart of the film, the jarring documentary provides Baldwin’s sociopolitical observations and showcases the writer’s eloquence and directness as a communicator.
Peck credits Baldwin with changing his life after he read “The Fire Next Time” when he was a teenager.
“The starting point of the movie are the words of a person, a great author, James Baldwin,” Peck said at the The Hollywood Reporter’s Documentary Oscar Roundtable. “My job was to put myself in the background. I knew those words since I was 15 years old.
“If I can summarize the essential part of Baldwin, it is the ability and obligation to always question whatever truth is put in front of you. Beginning with images, beginning with stories, beginning with cinema. This is something that I learned very early on,” Peck told a reporter last week. “And Baldwin gave me the words and the instruments to do that, to be able to deconstruct whatever was put in front of me—ideology, stories, narrative—very concretely.”
Baldwin was an American social critic, novelist, essayist, playwright and poet. His essays, as collected in “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), explore issues of race and class differences in a poignant, sometimes provocative way. His books include “The Fire Next Time” (1963), “Giovanni’s Room” (1965), “No Name in the Street” (1972), and “The Devil Finds Work” (1976).
There hasn’t been anyone who has been able to duplicate the power of Baldwin since his death at 63 in France in 1987. Baldwin confronted the “moral monsters” of racism in the United States and dealt with the complex social and psychological pressures confronting Black people in America. Baldwin often challenged White Americans on the question of racism.
“It does matter any longer what you do to me,” Baldwin said in an interview in 1965. “The problem now is how are you going to save yourselves?”