By Claire Oberon Garcia
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro opened in Paris this month to a sold-out and diverse audience at L’Arlequin Cinema on the city’s Left Bank.
The powerful film takes an innovative approach to presenting James Baldwin’s life and ideas, avoiding “talking heads” and using only words from his own writing along with archival film footage and clips from the Hollywood movies that Baldwin discussed as exemplifying certain enduring pathologies of American culture.
The filmmaker was in attendance, along with James Baldwin’s nephew and members of the film crew, and the silence of the packed hall was remarkable, almost as if everyone were all in a collective trance.
As Baldwin would pause, for example, in an interview with Dick Cavett to search for just the right entrance point into a response to a question, the audience collectively held its breath.
Save for a few moments of quiet, bitter laughter at points later in the film, the audience was quietly absorbed by Baldwin’s words and the powerful and often violent visual images. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice - almost unrecognizable - respectfully brought Baldwin’s characteristic very personal but formal rhetoric to life.
Images from the present constantly infiltrated Baldwin’s words and archival visuals: footage of
|Writer James Baldwin, in the film.|
Despite the film’s emphasis on broader social forces and problems, it also conveyed a sense of Baldwin’s individuality and vision: his development from a bright, curious Harlem boy with bad teeth to a celebrated intellectual who nevertheless always felt himself to be an outsider, a self-described witness to social change rather than a participant in it, who seemed startled to receive a standing ovation by hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates after winning a debate against the aristocratic American right-wing critic William F. Buckley.
The audience gave the film a standing ovation that lasted until the end of the credits, after which Peck spent nearly an hour answering questions from the audience.
Interest in Baldwin’s work has only recently been revived. Peck described the impact that reading Baldwin at age 17 or 18 had on him, and declared that the motivation for making this film was to help make sure that Baldwin’s ideas were not lost to future generations.
When asked by a young woman in the audience whether or not the film had any message for France, Peck declared that Baldwin’s critique isn’t just of the United States, but addresses any society that does not respect various aspects of human difference, including immigration status, gender, and sexual orientation.
The film made clear that Baldwin’s incisive analysis of the pathology of U.S. racism is still relevant today, and that today’s increasingly polarized West is badly in need of his brand of intelligent, righteous humanism.
Claire Oberon Garcia is an author and a professor of literature, race and migration studies at Colorado College in the United States. She is co-editor of the book From Uncle Tom's Cabin to The Help.