Tuesday, March 7, 2017


When I was a teenager, back in the 1950s, before James Baldwin became a household name in the later '60s, he was one of the handful of writers whose work I sought out and devoured, every word he published I looked for to read.

I saw him a few times in bars and knew people who knew him, but never met him. I was sad when later in the 1960s and early '70s his reputation suffered among young radicals, like I was, because he didn't seem militant and revolutionary enough for those times. And I was sorry when he passed.

Now, many decades later, Baldwin is being rediscovered by an even younger generation, through the Internet and now this documentary, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, directed by Paul Peck using mostly James Baldwin's words in interviews and at a famous debate at Oxford, and by Samuel L. Jackson reading from Baldwin's never completed last novel—mostly notes—and letters to his editor about it.

The film works so well, I think, because it excerpts short clips and passages of Baldwin talking, and snippets of historic news and TV footage, all edited to keep the jump-cut nature of modern-media audiences satisfied. The historical footage alone creates a reality hardly matched today.

I have only a few caveats, mostly about the leaving out of some historical truths that I have to assume Peck didn't want his audience to get distracted by, like that Malcolm X's assassins weren't white (the editing implies they were), or that Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. grew close at the end not only in person but in perspective as each shifted their focus from activity solely against racial oppression and more toward commonality and economic inequality. (Which I pointed out in my own writing from the moment King was assassinated after he decided to lead a march on Washington for that very cause).

But the power of Baldwin's words and intellectual charisma overwhelms I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO in a way that left me wanting more, and wanting to go back and reread Baldwin's books. My advice about this movie: Don't miss it.

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