James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, on film


This video says about itself:

I Am Not Your Negro Official Trailer 1 (2016) – James Baldwin Documentary

5 January 2017

Directed By: Raoul Peck

Writer James Baldwin tells the story of race in modern America with his unfinished novel, Remember This House.

On 10 June 2017, I went to see this film.

Unfortunately, not so many people in the cinema for this important work. It includes both historic footage of Baldwin, and texts written by him, spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The subject is James Baldwin and three fighters for African Americans: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Baldwin started to write a book, Remember This House, about these three, but it was still unfinished when he died. Baldwin noted that these three men were all different, yet had common ground. Eg, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X got closer to each other’s positions as time progressed.

Baldwin knew all three of them personally, and was deeply shocked when all three were murdered in the 1960s. He was older than all of them, and had expected that King, Malcolm X and Evers would all survive him.

The film is also about another person, younger than Baldwin, whom he survived: fellow African American author Lorraine Hansbury. The film tells how Baldwin and Hansbury in the 1960s had a conversation with Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the USA. Baldwin and Hansbury told Kennedy how African American children, when going to newly integrated schools, were attacked by white supremacists. They suggested that Robert’s brother John F. Kennedy, then president of the USA, should walk along these children into a school as a sign of government commitment to anti-racism. Robert Kennedy rejected that idea.

This hurt Baldwin, as school integration was why he had returned to the USA. He had left his native country for Paris because of racism. In the 1950s, he had returned as he had seen in a French newspaper a photo of a 15-year-old black schoolgirl, Dorothy Counts, harassed by racists in North Carolina in the southern USA. The film shows clips of white demonstrators against school integration, brandishing nazi swastika signs.

In the meantime, the FBI spied on Baldwin whom they considered a public enemy because of his criticism of racism. Baldwin’s 1,884 pages long FBI file attacked him for being gay. They thought they could use that against him; in a time when there was homophobia, including in more or less progressive sectors like the world of literature, sections of the black liberation movement, sections of the women’s liberation movement and sections of socialist movements. The FBI spied on Lorraine Hansberry and many other African American authors for many decades as well. Lorraine Hansbury, contrary to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers was not murdered: she died, 34 years old, from lung cancer, and according to Baldwin (not quoted on this in the film) from the stress in her strenuous fight against racism and homophobia.

Baldwin wrote that he had not joined the organisations to which his three murdered fellow fighters against racism belonged. He had not joined Medgar Evers’ NAACP. He was from the north of the USA, where in his experience the NAACP was too middle class, while he was from a poor background. He also did not join the Nation of Islam (NOI; Malcolm X’s organisation in the 1950s) or the Black Panther Party, ‘because I don’t believe white people are all devils’. That might have been a reason not to join the NOI; but it was inaccurate for the Black Panther Party, which militantly opposed white supremacy, not individuals who happened to be white; though the media often wrongly depicted them as ‘black racists’. Baldwin said he had a good white teacher at primary school, to whom he was grateful.

The film does not tell why Baldwin never finished the book Remember This House. I do know that in his later years, Baldwin suffered from cancer; which killed him in 1989, like it had killed Lorraine Hansbury.

The film does not stop with Baldwin’s death. It also includes recent scenes, eg, of the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of people like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The film mentions war, including a clip of a Martin Luther King speech against the Vietnam war, shouting: ‘Stop the bombing! Stop the war!’

Baldwin says on violence in the film: ‘If Israeli armed forces – I have nothing against that country, I am not anti-Semitic – use violence, they are often depicted as heroes in the USA. If Irish people use violence against British occupation, many Irish Americans and other white people see them as freedom fighters. If Poles use violence against Russians, they are often depicted in the USA as freedom fighters. However, if negroes, if black people, do similar things, then suddenly they are depicted as criminals or monsters’.

In the beginning of the film, Baldwin tells about films he saw when he was small. The ‘heroes’ were often white men killing native Americans. Young Baldwin identified with these ‘heroes’, until he found out that as a ‘negro’, white people, especially white people in authority like policemen, treated people like him rather similarly to those ‘Indians’.

The film has many clips from Hollywood movies. Nut just Westerns with much violence: also films, and TV commercials, in which everyone seems to be white and everyone seems to be happy. Baldwin comments that superficial imagery like this leads to narrow-mindedness and denial of social problems in the USA.

A sharply critical review of Baldwin as a political activist and of the film is here. The reviewer reproaches the film with saying too little about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and saying these two came closer together, but not elaborating in what sense. It also criticizes Baldwin and filmmaker Peck for neglecting class and capitalism and their relationship with racism. That is not completely fair. In the film, Baldwin connects the white supremacist United States society to ‘the Chase Manhattan bank‘. Also, in the limited time of a documentary film one cannot extensively discuss too many intricate subjects. This harsh criticism of the Baldwin film is a bit surprising as the same site was rather more positive on another Peck film; and on yet another one.

Finally, Baldwin said that, in spite of being aware of many bad things: ‘I am an optimist; because I am alive’.

An important film worth seeing!

Advertisements

One thought on “James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, on film

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s