James Baldwin was a decorated essayist, novelist and playwright as well as a staunch civil rights advocate whose work exemplified his outspokenness. However, it was his final unfinished book, “Remember this House,” that became the inspiration for the film “I Am Not Your Negro.”
The incomplete book captured the attention of director Raoul Peck, whose movie opens in theaters today. The film recently received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary — feature.
In 1979, Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent about the project, intended to be a “revolutionary, personal account” of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When Baldwin died at age 63 in 1987, the New York-born writer left behind only 30 completed pages of the manuscript.
Armed with books, papers and artifacts provided by Baldwin’s family, Peck took on the bold and daunting challenge of completing the project. In “I Am Not Your Negro,” Peck envisions the book Baldwin never finished.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film comprises archival footage that I — along with other baby boomers — can recall seeing on a black and white television as a child, but did not fully understand its meaning.
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin writes. “It is not a pretty story...”
The movie makes a strong case throughout to back up the novelist.
“If any white man says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin said during an interview on “The Dick Cavett Show.” “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 nier so there won’t be any more like him.”
From hard-hitting footage of little Black children being escorted to school under armed guard through an angry mob of whites, to disturbing scenes from the slaughter of young Black men and women across the country and the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the film demonstrates that while in some instances race relations in America have improved, in many ways, the situation has digressed.
Perhaps the most profound moments of the film are the many instances when Baldwin’s intriguing face and big expressive eyes fill the screen as he poses provocative questions and issues bold challenges, saying, “The question the white population of this country has to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nier in the first place. ‘Cause I’m not a nier. I am a man! But if you think I’m a nier, when do you need it? And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that!”
Particularly timely in its release, “I Am Not Your Negro,” for those who are brave enough to go and experience it, challenges America to face its shameful past, as well as its now-uncertain future. (Rated: PG-13)