“They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand;
and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
— James Baldwin
Documentaries are the vegetables of the movie world. You may not always want to consume one, but for the sake of your health you really should. They can act like visual newspapers to provide dispatches from a turbulent present. They can bring the past to vivid life in order to provide guidance for the future. Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro accomplishes the latter task by intellectually resurrecting acclaimed writer James Baldwin. The filmmakers do this not a moment too soon, because his words are needed more than ever.
Baldwin’s words are the star of I Am Not Your Negro. They are recited by Baldwin himself and narrator Samuel L. Jackson in what critic Odie Henderson has called one of the best performances of Jackson’s career. Many of those words come from his unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which is about his relationships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But Peck also makes use of sections of other Baldwin works, such as The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay about American cinema. Baldwin could write equally well on subjects as disparate as racial inequality and Doris Day.
To read Baldwin’s words is to slip into another consciousness. His sentences draw you into his head until you’re grappling with the same centuries of discrimination and oppression that influenced his life and continue to influence the lives of many. His words can make you see things from a perspective you’ve never had. I’ve never really had younger relatives, but he made me feel the vivid love and worry he had for his nephew when I read the first half of The Fire Next Time. I’ve never felt more like an older sibling than when I read that letter.
One of my favorite Baldwin quotes is “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” A lot of Americans have a hard time facing the darker side of their history. It can be hard and sad to do so, but there are few things more noble than acknowledging faults and striving to fix them. This is possible on an individual level, and I believe that it is possible on a national level. The racial divides that plague us have been carved out of centuries of prejudice, and if we ever bridge them, it will take a very long time. But reading the works of authors like Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and seeing films by people like Peck and past Jorgensen lecturer Ava DuVernay, can start conversations that could help create greater understanding among the diverse America that I love. I hope this can happen sooner rather than later. As Baldwin’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
IU Cinema just added another screening of Paoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro tonight, February 9, at 9:30 pm. Tickets are available online, at IU Auditorium Box Office or in the IU Cinema lobby an hour before showtime, but the first two screenings SOLD OUT quickly, so get your tickets in advance. [UPDATE: All three screenings have SOLD OUT!]
Ava DuVernay visited the Cinema in 2013. She delivered a Jorgensen lecture, and IU Cinema screened her films I Will Follow, This is the Life, Venus Vs., and Middle of Nowhere. IU Cinema also honored her groundbreaking film distribution venture, the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) now known as ARRAY, by screening Better Mus’ Come.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.