James Baldwin‘s (1924-1987) life and legacy can now speak to modern audiences in a new documentary called I Am Not Your Negro. The film is finally getting a long overdue theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures this February 3rd after wowing audiences at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I Am Not Your Negro is a film from Haitian director Raoul Peck that envisions Baldwin’s final, albeit incomplete novel Remember This House as an uncompromising and complete narrative of race in America. The unfinished memoir focuses on the authors personal memories and relationships with three enduring Civil Rights leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Peck was allowed access to the entire Baldwin archives and composed the film over a period of 10 years, drawing from the incomplete manuscript and Baldwin’s own personal notes. It won the People’s Choice Documentary Award and, like Baldwin himself, is sure to stand as a vital testament to race in America today.
James Baldwin grew up in Harlem in New York City, where he was subjected to the realities of prejudice and segregation in the United States at a young age. In high school he began to realize he was also homosexual, and by age 24, having become embittered by blatant racial and sexual prejudice, left the US to settle in France, where he would remain for most of his life. His aim in living abroad was to ultimately gain an appreciation of his own work outside of the confines of being an African-American. He settled in the southern village of Saint-Paul-de-Vance, where he enjoyed dedicating days of solitude to writing essays, novels, plays, and poetry.
Naturally, Baldwin’s writing tended to coincide with his political and philosophical ideologies. His campaign for civil rights and his own homosexuality are reflected in controversial novels like Giovanni’s Room, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, and essays like Notes of a Native Son and Down at the Cross (aka. The Fire Next Door). The latter earned Baldwin a spot on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963 which, along with his tour of the South as part of the Congress of Racial Equality, made him one of the most celebrated activists of the era. He began touring the country, visiting towns and campuses to give lectures on racial equality and socialism. He also famously met with Robert Kennedy to discuss the race issue in America.
Despite his popularity and incredible ability to describe the unrest going on in the American South, Baldwin’s homosexuality caused rifts in his campaign efforts. Martin Luther King eventually distanced himself from Baldwin on account of his sexual orientation, and Baldwin was even un-invited to speak at the end of the March on Washington event in August 1963. Even so, Baldwin continued his crusade for racial equality. He participated in the famous march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, and blamed the Kennedys and politicians in Washington for the unrest that was a result of their unwillingness to act on behalf of black Americans.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin continued to write throughout the rest of the 1970s and ’80s. In spite of his importance to the era, he always maintained that he had not actually participated in any civil rights movement. He believed, like Malcolm X, that as a citizen, it was not necessary for him to campaign for his own civil rights. He declined memberships in reputable groups like the NAACP, the Black Panther Party, and even the SNCC, although he participated in SNCC events like the Selma-Montgomery March. In making a documentary centered on Baldwin’s work, Peck considers himself lucky to have had the ability to make the film like he wanted to make it. His production company Velvet Film, along with the support of the Baldwin family and French television station ARTE has allowed him to present an uncensored look into Baldwin’s legacy. “I hope,” says Peck, “this film will help rephrase what is called the race conversation, which deep down is a class conversation.”