A first handful of thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro, which is a film worth thinking about in a couple of different ways. First, as a film about race and American life. Second, as a film about James Baldwin. Those both are and are not the same thing in Peck’s film, I think. These are first impressions, but I wanted to write them down. I think Peck’s film is worth returning to and exploring. He’s a brilliant artist, and this is a work of art, which means it demands a lot of thoughtfulness.
I usually hesitate to write out first impressions. And yet, here are five:
The film is at bottom an exemplary document of afro-pessimism. In that sense, part of the question of the success of the film is a question about the viability of an afro-pessimist reading of Baldwin. (My own take on this is HERE and a bit more obliquely HERE.) I’m not entirely drawn in by that as a portrait of Baldwin’s writing and life of ideas; Baldwin’s complexity as a writer is real, which means a strong reading of his work, one that selects an approach and threads together a long interpretation, will always be fraught. Peck isn’t much interested in that complexity, and as a result we don’t get much of a multi-dimensional portrait of Baldwin. To wit: I think this film could easily have been a film about Richard Wright. What to make of that? A scholar’s question, yes, but it’s a scholarly film, so worth asking. Maybe the fact that it is based on an unpublished manuscript explains these choices. Or maybe it is a broader interpretation of Baldwin as a thinker and figure. That would be an interesting question for Peck. As a portrait of African-American history across the past half century, however? It’s an excellent piece, no question. Afro-pessimism has purchase, whatever one thinks about it in the end, for a reason. Peck’s jarring insertion of Ferguson footage and faces and names murdered by the police was actually pretty amazing. Difficult, as it should be, but amazing.
Peck is a brilliant artist and I really like his work. Like all artists, he has go-to motifs and images. A constant across is work is a quiet obsession with movement and passage. La mort du prophète (the documentary, not fiction film) is a rigorous exercise in that obsession, for example. Another part of the question of the success of the film, then, is right there: is movement and passage a proper aesthetic for reckoning with Baldwin’s work? This is especially interesting because the film is not in any way about Baldwin in exile. The politics of the film are of no movement whatsoever, but instead of continuity and obstinance. But I didn’t see the aesthetics of movement as ironic or cruel. So, not sure what to do with all that.
I am not quite sure what to think about a film about Baldwin that is not really about Baldwin the artist – especially since Peck himself is such an artistic filmmaker, so someone who’s very attuned to creativity and exploration. The Price of the Ticket, for example, is a film deeply committed to Baldwin as artist, perhaps to a fault. I Am Not Your Negro is a stark contrast in that sense, as Peck immerses us in the political life of the moment, the political moment of Baldwin’s life. The two films are such interesting companion pieces. I think there is a lot to think about when putting them in relation. A lot to think about both in terms of reckoning with Baldwin as a figure and in terms of thinking about historical representations of Black lives and Black artist lives in film.
The one thing I did not like so much about the film was sound. Jackson’s voiceover didn’t compel me, probably because I do love Baldwin’s quirky own voice so much, and the voiceover was really so far from that. This is a matter of taste, though. There is nothing actually wrong with the reading performance. It is modestly and respectfully done, and also bold when it needs to be. But I really thought Peck got the music wrong. This, to me, is really too bad, because music is so important to Baldwin. That thing about needing only Bessie Smith and a typewriter … that is Baldwin the artist, and perhaps also Baldwin the political figure (what would it mean to read Baldwin’s political moment through his music?). Peck really didn’t get that right. In some ways, I guess, this is a minor concern, but it also says a lot about my own reading and thoughts about Baldwin’s work that I think it is a major flaw in the film’s aesthetic. There is no sense of how music is for Baldwin the elegance and beauty of Black life and history, even as Peck peppers the film with blues and gospel here and there. The choices are sonically awkward, I think. (I’m thinking in particular of a late-career Buddy Guy song played over shots of the rural South, which brings a very not-Southern sound from Chicago to the South and to Baldwin, whose music was either Southern or uptown. That didn’t work for me. But also no Marian Anderson or Paul Robeson. Etc.) Without real attentiveness to that sonic dimension, we don’t get a full picture of how much and in what ways Baldwin love Black people.
The thing I thought Peck got best and really returned to it over and over is Baldwin’s contention that white people need abject Blackness to understand who they are. And in that way, whiteness is just another name for anti-Black violence – not as a striking out, but as a making of identity. Peck selects great passages for this, and the strongest and most shocking parts of the film, for me, are in those moments of recitation over a Doris Day and Gary Cooper scene (contrasted in “Black English: A Dishonest Argument” with Ray Charles’ face), or a John Wayne clip. White ideality in those moments passes from being exclusionary (a trite, vanilla reading) to being ideological sites of production and reproduction of mass terror and violence. Brilliant. I will use those moments from the film in many, many classes in the future. That is one of the most enigmatic bits in Baldwin’s work, one of the most subtle arguments. Peck gets it and makes it into a cinematic event. The entirety of Peck’s work in I Am Not Your Negro is witness to this insight, I think, and he absolutely gets it and gets it on film. Moral monsters – when Baldwin utters that phrase, put over the most grotesque yet common television clips of angry (or festive … or both at once) white mobs, as a characterization of what white people have made of themselves – well, the film is complete and whole and brilliant just for that alone.
Those are first impressions. I absolutely loved watching it and sitting with an audience that barely moved for the entire length of the film. I will watch it again a few more times, for sure. I think it is an important contribution to our moment – a moment that may or may not be suited to Baldwin (we all have our thoughts), but, if it is, Peck makes the case here in detail and with respect and rigor.