Speaking with The Dead in I Am Not Your Negro

After a round of margaritas in The Mission, I ended up at the SF Alamo Drafthouse to peep I Am Not Your Negro, the James Baldwin documentary that has been wowing everybody with a pulse for the last 9-ish months. It was a rainy night and a date, so the tone was pretty chill as we sauntered our way, minutes late, to the theater. As we chatted incessantly about life, blackness and what it’s like to silence oneself in the midst of microaggressions, all I could ironically think in my head was “lord, please don’t let me be *too* loud or *too much* during this screening.”

I’d been drinking. I was with someone I liked. And I was about to watch a film about a queer black man who spent his life discovering himself, his peers and the depths to which whyfolks in this country hold onto racial depravity and nationalistic myths.  In a word: I was probably going to definitely be *too much* watching this.

And yet, as I came off my tequila-infused state of being (Writer’s Note: I know Sopé, of the now infamous OutlawBarz Podcast, is reading this and screaming “hypocrite!” that I, a known hater of tequila would be drinking it so heartily. She can sue me.), I realized that these expectations I set up for myself were the exact kind of excising of my experience and identity (of blackness singular and communal, of youth and of drunkenness) that Baldwin so vehemently struggled with, and that the film struggles with, and more.

Enter the film itself.

I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful sojourn through experiences past and present with your ancestors; a racial vision quest by any other name. Laced with historical and contemporary imagery and footage, it’s narrated by Baldwin’s own words — brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson’s readings — in the form of of Baldwin’s letters, notes to his editor, excerpts from his film essay book The Devil Finds Work, and the unfinished manuscript of his last work, Remember This House. It’s an ethereal experience for a variety of reasons.

First among them is that the film doesn’t shy from weaving past and present visually, with newsreels from 2015-16 courting cuts from the 1900’s. While this isn’t a new technique, it takes on an eerie quality as you listen to Baldwin describe the world. It’s a beautiful rhetorical exercise, made reality through editing, that forces you to reconcile that “back then” is only separated from “here and now” by only so many trips around the sun. It’s the film’s way of communicating that the brutalities, difficulties, prejudices and people that Baldwin and his peers fought against are still very much alive in spirit, institution and practice today.

This is devastatingly paired with performance. Samuel L. Jackson, for better or worse, is a Prominent Black Actor. Pero, he’s a black actor whose ties are about as confounding as some of his performances. This often creates a tenuous relationship between him and audiences. For instance, his closeness to every Tarantino project makes many of us question just how soft Sam’s shoes are. Conversely, we still want to love him because he is the culture, in so many ways. A veteran of multiple generations of black creators, Sam has given us so much: from Gator in Jungle Fever to the forever quotable lines of his characters in Snakes on a Plane, Pulp Fiction and more. This side of him — the brash and learned man full of unapologetically black quotes — is the one we love to hate and hate to love.

He embodies the uncle we know, and, the superpredators we fear others perceive him as. While we enjoy him (or not), we fear for him, and men like him, just as much as we want them to not be feared. An anomaly unto himself and the American consciousness, Sam ultimately is at the intersection of much of what the film itself deals with. So, I find it incredibly powerful that the Sam I Am Not Your Negro provides us with is a measured, resonant and introspective Sam to channel Baldwin. This is all the more powerful because his voice lends a certain edge to Baldwin’s words, painting the violence, pain, love and whimsy that interplayed in Baldwin’s prose. Channeling a public ancestor in such a powerful way, there’s almost as much discourse to be had about this single casting choice as there is about the film itself.

This of course isn’t to elide the conversation to be had about Baldwin’s queerness taking a backseat in this performance. For one, it’s strange that one of Baldwin’s many proverbial sons wasn’t chosen to read him back into existence. There are tons of black queer scholars and writers who could have taken Sam’s place, accolades or not. Films are, however, money-eating projects. So at some point capitalism will always intervene when art is on the line — Sam was a smart financial choice for a variety of reasons.

But I digress. The film doesn’t make much note of Baldwin’s own identity. I’ve wrestled with how to properly adjudicate that, and upon some reflection (with help from Maia and our Editor, Adam) I think it’s both good and bad.

Context first though: as much as it is artifice, this film is a documentary of sorts. However, instead of opting for talking heads and lots of interviews with people who knew of, or knew Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro is working in a multitude of primary sources from Baldwin himself. In effect then, the subject is also the author. This muddies the waters of our viewing experience. And provides some clarity to the root absence of Baldwin’s identity.

On one hand, Baldwin speaks and is given modern platforms upon which to explore themes from Remember This House and his film essays in The Devil Finds Work. In these instances, he is orator and witness and essayist, at once bringing us into his thoughts and critically engaging the theater of politics and society around him. It’s a straightforward presentation that provides grounding for the film and behooves us to trust it because it seems to come straight from Baldwin himself. Under this assumption, one could argue (and initially, I did) then that it’s not the film’s fault that Baldwin doesn’t mention his own deeper identities. But that’d be a huge mistake. Because, while the film gives the illusion of asserting Baldwin as sole author, he isn’t, right? Ultimately, the director Raoul Peck is. And thus, Peck has final editorial ability to inject or erase Baldwin’s words as he sees fit.

And sadly, in his quest to provide a straightforward, devastating, but digestible vision of Baldwin, Peck has flattened a bit of our ancestor’s legacy. In effect, obscuring the fount from which Baldwin’s very powers arise. And if I have any stark criticism for this film, it is that in presenting Baldwin as a *black first* witness, we lose sight of how the intersections of his identity made his act of witnessing so surgical in the first place. This is both an issue of blackness and an issue of storytelling.

On the issue of blackness, we are often conventionally forced to flatten our identities in favor of racial unity — we are black first, and then all other things second. Be you queer, disabled, Texan, woman or otherwise, those experiences must ultimately yield to your blackness. This flattening does a disservice to how all these identifications, together, inform one’s ability to be black, in whatever form. And clearly, with such a removal of Baldwin’s contentious and deep relationship with his own queerness (and how that affected his movement and journey), it at the very least feels odd to not see it mentioned, and at most is a serious flaw in the mighty vision of the film.

Which brings into mind the issue of storytelling. Films are finite and at some point they have to end. However, with such a broad expanse of subjects and moments culled from Baldwin’s life, it’s still strange that Peck doesn’t involve Baldwin’s deeper identities. For me, I think it’s about the product he wished to produce for modern audiences — a packaged and cutting take on Americana via this poetic titan of black American culture and history. However, I think it’s concerning, again, that in this effective lionization, he excises that which gave Baldwin his most incisive insights into the red-blooded, hypermasculine, heavily heterosexual and exclusionary undercurrents of both white American racism and the key players of the Civil Rights Movement itself. You can see it as a necessary evil for the sake of creating something to introduce us to Baldwin. But you can also rightly claim it as an erasure that is questionable from many angles.

Which of course, leads me to my final point here. The film’s subject is the ultimate erasure: death, both metaphorical and literal. Remember This House was Baldwin’s final work about the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And, using his words, the film works for you to know these people and Baldwin himself. I would argue, though, that the film pins itself to three more deaths: Baldwin’s, The American Dream (see: white people’s innocence) and the souls of black folks. But I’ll get to that in a wee bit.

Black folks, especially and specifically in America, are not strangers to death. Not one bit. Which is why our processes and understandings of mourning, the afterlife and communing with those who have passed are probably so diverse. In this instance, what makes I Am Not Your Negro so powerful is that, with the mixture of factors already stated, the film draws you into an ancestral space where you feel as though you’re communing with one and many — Baldwin, his peers, the unnamed black people in photos and the murdered, abused and forgotten. It is at once an experience of mourning, remembrance and cleansing. In Baldwin’s poetic recalls of his friends and peers, you feel his grief. Yet, in his memories, we find joy and admiration. And in his reflections we come face to face with caustic resolutions and understandings; for himself, and hopefully for us.

But what of white innocence and its fueling of the American Dream? In the film, Baldwin himself reflects on how he wrestled with understanding white people instead of just hating them. He notes the source of this ability, to even rhetorically approach the idea, being brought forth by being raised around enough “good” whypeople to be able to see their goodness. There’s…a deep sense of mourning in Baldwin that comes across as he sifts through the idea. Possibly, it’s for two reasons. One being an inner sadness for himself to carry the burden and responsibilities of actively exploring what exactly allowed whypeople to be as they were. And two, to finally discover years later that the answer is about as terrifying as it definite.

As the film closes, death all but suffocates him. And in those moments, Baldwin critically engages a series of questions and answers them. Through these engagements, I found myself mirroring him and coming to similar, if not the same, lines of thought. “Just how much humanity can be kept when a people invests their sense of self and power in a system that perpetuates unending violences upon black (and brown and yellow and red and queer and more) bodies and spirits?” “Ultimately, is not the price of The American Dream, of a universal white innocence, the sacrifice of the souls used to build it?” “White innocence then must be dead because it may have never truly existed — it’s a myth predicated upon an unwillingness to deconstruct the things that hold it together.”

It’s a fucking sobering and enraging moment to arrive at. And the film does well to present how Baldwin too feels these emotions in his time. In a last bit of footage, looking into the distance towards us, he pulls a drag from his cigarette as his words trail into conclusion. And then darkness. However, the séance ended not with a whisper, but with a burst. As a familiar song of very black angst and grief ran through the credits, I sat there much more sober, not knowing to cry or to laugh at how many white folk would pat themselves on the back for seeing this film. For, as much as I read those final scenes as one thing, my experience wasn’t isolated.

With an ending following Baldwin saying “I am an optimist because I am alive,” I find myself in retrospect sitting on that final death: Baldwin’s own. In a way, I can see how that line can send white folk home where they’ll sleep well at night knowing Baldwin still wanted to believe in their goodness.

I think that’s their problem though, and possibly, not even the film’s.

For one, Baldwin may have been brought to life through this film. But he is very much dead. And not just because of natural causes. It’s been proven by people smarter than me that racism kills, literally. And while Baldwin may have passed from stomach cancer, there are parts of me that mourn his loss knowing that all negativity we receive ends up manifesting in our bodies. He sacrificed so many of his years to fight, in his own way, for very basic ass rights. And, to think that in a very code-switching-esque line some folks seek their redemption? Eh. I’m good.

For me, I know that line as deeply as I know the back of my hand. While it may be a dog whistle to white folks that brings about calm, it’s also a searing bit of doublespeak. We (see: black people and other oppressed peoples) don’t want to believe in humanity because we superficially have to or possibly even want to. We want to believe in humanity out of dire necessity. Because the truth, the resounding and ugly truth, is that humanity chooses to be terrible. Whyfolks constantly choose to buy into the terrible things that benefit them. To the point where even “good” white folk who fight against these choices still benefit from it. It’s a profound truth that has made black folk racially tired of the bullshit for centuries.

And so, while Peck’s choices as to the editing there could be debated (is he seeking to bait white audiences so that the film felt inclusive? Was it a multi-audience dog whistle? etc), I’m firmly in the space of: it nearly doesn’t matter. Because the larger point is that white folks will choose to see how they are included and understood even when they aren’t meant to be, let alone present or the true subject in the narrative at all. But that’s one of the powers of delusional oppression: the ability to force a particular idea or hierarchy into places where it didn’t or shouldn’t exist in the first place.

So where do we go from here?

I Am Not Your Negro is a time capsule of our history and a powerful introduction to James Baldwin. In it, there are moments to witness and lessons still to be learned, for all Americans. Because black folk are still being murdered indiscriminately, the land and water of native folks are still being poisoned and taken, the histories of asian folks are still being rewritten and whitewashed, queer people are still demonized and abused, and poor people are still treated like trash. And yet, the country at large, still actively chooses to forget in favor of the sanitized accomplishments of each group and others.

In light of this and at the same time, the film is also a rhetorical question that sears itself into your side: what exactly can be done to release America’s oppressed from this living nightmare, a reverie which oppressors experience as self-induced fever dreams of a utopia whose fruits are soaked in blood? The answer is most likely definite and terrifying, still.

these boots mine.Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following:  IG | Twitter