Cultural criticism depicted in documentary: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ – commentary

James Baldwin

If you love cultural criticism, you have to see ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

February 2 – Washington Post

There are a lot of powerful things about “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, which opens this weekend. The movie juxtaposes the pages Baldwin wrote for a never-finished project about Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X called “Remember This House” with footage and photographs from the civil rights movement and the beating of Rodney King as well as scenes from the contemporary struggle for criminal-justice reform. Without diminishing the political clarity of these juxtapositions, the element of “I Am Not Your Negro” that struck me most strongly was the way the movie presents Baldwin as a cultural critic and analyst.   

Mass culture and race relations were inextricably linked in Baldwin’s own life. In “Remember This House,” he wrote about the influence of Orilla Miller, nicknamed Bill, a teacher who “gave me books, and talked to me about books, and about the world,” and took Baldwin to plays and movies that he might not otherwise have been exposed to. “It is because of Bill Miller, who appeared in my life so early, that I have never really managed to hate white people,” Baldwin wrote, in words narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

But Baldwin was sharply aware that pop culture could do more than facilitate empathy. Actors such as Stepin Fetchit “lied about the world I knew and abased it,” and also made Baldwin fear that their depictions of African Americans as shiftless and lazy were on some level true.

In “The Defiant Ones,” for example, Poitier and Tony Curtis played convicts who escaped while chained together. Once they’ve freed themselves of their shackles, Poitier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom when it becomes clear that Curtis can’t escape, too.

“When Sidney jumps off the train, the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful,” Baldwin wrote. “But when black people saw him, they yelled ‘Get back on the train, you fool.’ The black man jumps off the train to reassure white people.” This was in keeping with Baldwin’s rejection of portrayals of angelic black decency for the benefit of white viewers. “Because Uncle Tom refuses to take vengeance into his own hands, he was not a hero to me,” he writes in another section of the text, saying he preferred the white characters in Westerns. “They thought vengeance was theirs to take. And yes, I understood that. My countrymen were my enemy.” In a similar way, Baldwin noted that Poitier’s perfection in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” turned off black audiences, “because they felt in some way that Sidney was being used against them.”

But by contrast, Baldwin found something powerful in the ending of “In the Heat of the Night,” in which Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from Philadelphia who is wrongfully accused of murder while passing through the small town of Sparta, Miss., and stays to help Rod Steiger’s Sheriff Gillespie find the real killer. In the final scene of the film, Gillespie escorts Tibbs to the train station, carrying his suitcase and solicitously asking whether Tibbs has his ticket. The scene, and in fact the movie, are defined by Tibbs’s refusal to defer to make himself safe or to flatter Gillespie’s sense of himself.

“I am aware that men do not kiss each other in American films, nor, for the most part, in America,” Baldwin wrote. “Nor do the black detective and the white sheriff kiss here. But the obligatory fade-out kiss in the classic American film did not speak of love, and still less of sex. It spoke of reconciliation, of all things now becoming possible.”

That reconciliation is different, too, from the evasions that Baldwin accused American pop culture of facilitating. He called Gary Cooper and Doris Day “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” their depiction of the United States a way of papering over the racist violence that facilitated the blissful, brainless happiness the two depicted on screen. The Western was a bait-and-switch, he suggested at the Cambridge University debate in 1965, noting that “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

“The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life,” Baldwin wrote, describing an illusion that could be maintained only by near-addictive media consumption. “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be, and what we actually are … These images are designed not to trouble, but to reassure.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a vital call to be troubled rather than lured, arriving just at the time when we need it

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Comments

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On February 5, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    Excellent review. Thanks for sharing.

  • demerwater  On February 8, 2017 at 5:00 am

    I have a dissonance with the name “Sidney Poitier”.
    I read “To Sir, with Love” before I saw the film. I subsequently read “Paid Servant” – and my mind connected “Sidney Poitier” with “E R Braithwaite” and “Guyanese”.
    Inexplicably! Irrevocably! And Yes … Irrationally!
    Imagine my chagrin when I saw and heard (TV is such a marvelous medium) “Not in my lifetime!” from the lips of Mr. Poitier. This was in answer to a question, “Do you visualize a black President of the United States?”
    I have tried to link the utterance to Mr. Poitier himself – without success.
    Has it been scrubbed? I do not know! I really do not care!
    My wife confirms it – and that is good enough for me.
    The supreme irony is that the ‘song’ is like a ‘swansong’ to the Obama Legacy.

  • guyaneseonline  On February 27, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Fleeing anger in America, James Baldwin found solace in 1960s Turkey

    The American novelist was reaching the height of his international fame during the decade or so that he lived in Turkey, a place he came to regard as a sanctuary from the racism, homophobia and scarring civil rights struggle back home.
    By Kareem Fahim •
    Read more » Washington Post article

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