James Baldwin, that giant figure in 20th Century American letters, died in 1987 at the age of 63, when we were well into the age of television. So you would expect there to be great masses of filmed material available featuring the novelist, poet and activist.
You’d be wrong.
Intellectuals are hardly media stars in America — much less black intellectuals who speak truth to power as consistently as Baldwin did during his life.
It’s a shame. Watch footage of the gay African-American author and you’ll be struck by his extraordinary rhetorical style, his cogent critique of racial and sexual prejudice and his passion. Happily, you can see and hear Baldwin at length in the Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro,” a stirring documentary by prolific Haitian-born director Raoul Peck (“It’s Not About Love”).
Peck is the perfect man for the job. An activist and intellectual in his own right, he’s at work on a feature due later this year that has sparked a great deal of interest. Called “The Young Karl Marx,” it’s a fact-based scripted film about the contentious friendship between Karl Marx and his frequent collaborator Friedrich Engels.
Despite Peck’s heavy-duty credentials, there’s nothing esoteric or overly academic about “I Am Not Your Negro,” which offers an accessible but no-less-rigorous look at Baldwin’s prophetic analysis of racial discord in America.
Peck shows how Baldwin offered a portrait of racism not as an abstract construct but as it affects ordinary people in their daily lives.
He demonstrated that aspirations and ideals that seemed natural when voiced by whites were attacked as corrupt and dangerous when expressed by African Americans.
That includes the will to freedom.
“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin told Dick Cavett in a TV interview from 1968 excerpted in Peck’s film.
“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 n-----.”
It’s instructive to look at Cavett’s face. It registers what seems like shock and recognition at the same time.
Peck’s film is devoted to an ambitious project: to reconstruct the main points of Baldwin’s unfinished opus, “Remember This House.”
Baldwin had planned a study of the lives and deaths of a series of civil rights leaders murdered in the 1960s, including Medgar Evers (killed in 1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968).
“I Am Not Your Negro” is an unforgettable work. Baldwin’s words — eloquently spoken by Samuel Jackson — will haunt you.
Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson.
Director: Raoul Peck.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 95 minutes. Disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Wynwood, South Beach.