by Courtney Weaver
Remember this house and do not forget who built it…
Last weekend I sat in the Ark Lodge theater in Columbia City to view the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, the recent adaptation of the legendary writer and public intellectual’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, directed by Raoul Peck and accompanied by the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. The film was followed by a panel moderated by Marcus Harrison Green.
It’s worth noting the preview that directly prefaced the documentary was for the suburban horror story, Get Out, which really created quite an uneasy collective laugh of the audience. Precluded by the equally discomforting tome of the historic biopic United Kingdom. The staging felt intentional and uncomfortably hilarious in the way only ironic American pop culture references can.
The film opens with Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 juxtaposed with the recent Ferguson riots ignited by Michael Brown’s shooting. Baldwin presents the concept of implicit and explicit bias in plain terms to the show’s host,
“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
A stark black screen emblazoned by white typewriter print introduces Samuel L. Jackson’s voice narrating the unfinished 30-page manuscript Baldwin sent to Jay Acton at the Spartan Literary Agency on June 30th, 1969. He introduces the lives and deaths of three of the civil rights era’s most influential leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Jackson’s voice conveys the intimacy and convocation of Baldwin’s soul.
“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other — as in truth — they did”
Baldwin was called home because he “…missed that style, possessed by no other people in the world…” After living abroad for many years he returned home not because he missed any of the worldly amenities attributed to America as the world knows it, but to tell the real story that White America was too ashamed to tell.
“Coming home after Paris I wasn’t homesick for anything. It made no difference if I ever saw them again, but I missed my brothers, sisters, and mother… I missed Harlem Sunday mornings… I missed the way the dark face closes, the way dark eyes watch, and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go on everywhere.”
Peck beautifully intersperses a montage of images from popular culture across the screen as Jackson’s voice brings to life the prescient words of James Baldwin, gloriously illustrating his early experiences with the white world — his first crush on Joan Crawford in Dance Fools Dance in 1951, his white school teacher Orilla “Bill” Miller, and his realization that the protagonist narratives he rooted for in his beloved movies were rooting against faces that looked like his.
Scenes from the 1937 film They Won’t Forget splash across the screen, showing the small part of Tump Redwine, played by Clinton Rosemond, a black janitor falsely accused of raping and killing a white woman whose body is found on the premises of his groundskeeping. The terror captured in Rosemond’s is eyes left an indelible mark on young Baldwin’s psyche,
“The film’s icy brutality both strengthened me and terrified me”
While watching this film, it struck me as quite ironic and apropos that among the many depictions of violence in the film, predominantly against Black people, that the moment the crowd audibly gasped in unified horror was two-thirds of the way through when a young white woman on a horse dove off a diving board into a pool at a summer carnival. That in itself deserves a whole separate piece.
As promised by the manuscript the lives of civil rights Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers are illuminated— reflecting both their contrasts in philosophy and approach while being driven by the same desired principle. Though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the use-of-force they were united in their quest to bring light to the inconvenient truth of America.
That honestly didn’t fit with the narrative America wanted, but it was the narrative the country deserved. Old photographs and footage of civil rights protests seamlessly blending into present-day documentation of the rise of Black Lives Matter to show the story of America that most in white America still do not want to hear, refuse to recount, but must confront. Baldwin saw himself as a needed witness to the civil rights movement,
“Was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.”
The cognitive dissonance of today and yesterday is prophesized by Baldwin’s disillusionment with then attorney-general Bobby Kennedy’s words that America may see a black president in 40 years.
It was confounding as a viewer to notice the one part of Baldwin’s identity that is all but erased, his homosexuality. The documentary does touch on the black males’s sexuality being propped up and erased in American culture, and that Baldwin viewed Sidney Poitier’s role in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner as a moral failure to recognize that a black man’s sexuality existed at all. The only hint of Baldwin’s sexuality is evinced by the final scene of the movie, In the Heat of the Night, and a brief clip of a headline when Baldwin was being investigated by the FBI.
The similar fashion of each man’s assassination and steely atmosphere at their respective funerals invokes the opening statements poignant timelessness. The news of each assassination is brought to him at the most leisurely of places. Places where he feels unencumbered by the harsh realities, Baldwin is given no reprieve in his more capricious moments, and his duty to bear witness to the lives of these men and the America he lived in he did not take lightly. Palm trees be damned.
Survivor guilt is inherent in his prose, that as the elder he should have been the first to die, that people forget how young they all were at the times of their death and the immense responsibility they carried even at the funerals. The faces of prominent figures and family members dwelled on the screen. This harsh glimpse of Black brutality is further invoked with the colored portraits of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Jones, Amir Brooks, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland.
Baldwin’s speculation of the vapid and hollow American life is illustrated by scenes from reality television. This vacuous consummation of the black and white American experience is polarized by the “white” lies we tell ourselves on the silver screen. Lurking underneath this subterranean imagery I am forced to reckon with the reality star presiding over this illusory America Baldwin is speaking of.
Gone are the modern day buzzwords “intersectionality”, “white supremacy” and “ a seat at the table”, replaced by standalone black and white memes between themes, but the true meaning of their essence is staunchly embodied in the images, events, and people portrayed. In a way it feels better, these words have been” co-opted” as a way for white people to scapegoat accountability, and as Baldwin concludes:
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, it is not a pretty story.”
Courtney Weaver is a local blues singer, a domestic and gun violence survivor, and a violence researcher. She also enjoys peaches in her spare time.