The writing of author and activist James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) blew my mind when I was young and continues to strongly affect my world view in the periodic re-readings I do of his work. Most recently I revisited Another Country, an incredibly passionate novel based on his time in France that explores gay, bi, and straight sexuality with a candor that is hard to believe for 1962. But he had already published Giovanni’s Room (1956), to me one of the most elegantly written, beautiful, and courageous gay novels we have.
As a lifelong fan, I am so thrilled that filmmaker Raoul Peck was able to take the 30 pages of the unfinished book Baldwin was working on and turn it into the film I Am Not Your Negro. In the just-started book Remember This House, Baldwin wanted to give his personal perspective on the lives and the murders of three crucial black leaders, all of them dear friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
What is astonishing about I Am Not Your Negro, is that every word of the script is written or spoken by James Baldwin. Either Peck uses clips from numerous interviews and speeches, or the single cast member, Samuel L. Jackson, reads the writer’s own words with restrained power, off-camera.
We follow Baldwin’s own expanding understanding and come to understand how, at age 24, the combination of racism and homophobia drove him to live in France and how the images of a lone teenager attempting to attend a white high school drew him back to the fight in the States in 1957. We see scenes of vile racism, clips of the Civil Rights Movement, and footage of the vicious reaction of the officials and police.
There are few voices more iconic and prescient than that of James Baldwin, as the multi-award-winning I Am Not Your Negro shows us so clearly. It is a film that I most highly recommend and plan to see again. But there is a gaping hole, an elephant in the room, a strange silence about Baldwin’s own love of men. His homosexuality was so fundamental to his perceptions and his literature that it is puzzling that the film only made references once or twice that were so oblique that few would pick up on them. It is a brilliant film about a beloved historical figure, but the film remains closeted – as Baldwin refused to do.
You can view the trailer here: