At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement's influence is showing in popular culture, such as hit horror film Get Out, Rhys Williams looks at the urgent relevance of black civil rights campaigner James Baldwin's words today, as presented in Raoul Peck's documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.
Raoul Peck’s new documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro, sets the words of author and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, against archive footage of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Sprawling and epic in scope — setting in its sights the whole of the black experience in America, from slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement — it is poetic and almost romantic, yet very angry. It arrives at a time when audiences are being enthused by the anti-racism of Get Out, a more mainstream and comic movie, but just as sharp.
What Get Out and I Am Not Your Negro both do is to make the existence of racism explicit. The confrontation with racism as part of the lived experience of black people results in a directly political perspective and marks a shift in recent American cinema.
At a time when American football stars refuse to stand for the national anthem and Beyoncé celebrates the Black Panthers at the Superbowl, it would be surprising if this mood of resistance were not reflected on the big screen. But the expensive and time consuming nature of film production has always made it a medium that struggles to keep up with changes in the popular mood and explosions of anger on the streets.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement audiences were watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), the “race-relations classic” that Get Out parodies and Baldwin criticises for its implicit racism. While the new movement against racism in the US has inspired other films on the subject of race in recent years, it is not until four years after the first Black Lives Matter protests that we get a mainstream film as explicit in its treatment of contemporary racism as Get Out.
Documentaries such as last year’s 13th by Ava DuVernay have been more explicit than dramas in dealing with this question. Nevertheless, the anger and disgust at the racism and hypocrisy of US society in I Am Not Your Negro seem to represent a break with the past.
The film opens in 1968 with a perplexed white talk-show host asking Baldwin why “the Negro” is not more optimistic when there are so many black people in prominent positions in society. Baldwin’s response to the nervous presenter is that “it’s not a question of what will happen to the black man but what will happen to America”. This strikes a chord today when large sections of the US population face declining living standards and horrific cuts to already meagre public services.
Baldwin describes his role as that of a witness, to “travel as widely and as freely as possible”, and the film is indeed wide and free in its scope, mixing history, politics and popular culture. It is punctuated by the deaths of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
The use of archive footage is particularly powerful. Malcolm X’s speech advocating using any means necessary in the fight for justice is cut with shots of the police — replete with tanks and automatic weapons — as an occupying army in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the police murder of Michael Brown in 2014. This montage style calls out the racism that was essential to the founding of the US and draws a line right up to the present day.
One of the most striking images in Get Out — of the hero Chris standing with foreboding before a police car — could have been lifted directly from a camera phone video of a Black Lives Matter protest.
I Am Not Your Negro is at its most powerful when it aims its fire at politicians and the police. Particularly striking is the scorn Baldwin pours on Bobby Kennedy for the condescending remark that in 40 years time America would be ready for a black president.
In Get Out self-satisfied white liberals keep saying they “would’ve voted for Obama a third time”. The punch behind this running joke is their assumption that the Obama presidency made things better for black people. The reality — all too obvious to audiences both sides of the Atlantic — is that he couldn’t even stop the police brazenly killing black people, let alone reverse the decline in their economic and social position.
We are witnessing a move towards more explicitly political filmmaking. The anger on the streets has taken a while to filter through to the movie screen, and the post-Obama political debates currently taking place in the movement may take longer still.
Audiences watching Get Out have enthusiastically cheered on Chris’s battles against his enemies while appreciating the film’s subtle parody of liberal racism. It is a heartening response to Baldwin’s impassioned appeal for people to rediscover their humanity and a welcome relief from the ironic detachment of much of Hollywood output of the last several years. American cinema has found something to get angry about again.
I Am Not Your Negro is released on 7 April. Get Out is out now.