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“How come something written forty years ago rings so true?”

Raoul Peck

Raoul Peck

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 10, 2017.

In April 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King was followed by a wave of urban riots. Troops were sent in to in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. to quell unrest. Two months later, author James Baldwin appeared as a guest on Dick Cavett’s television show. “It’s getting so much better. There are negro mayors, there’s negroes in all of sports, there are negroes in politics,” Cavett observed. “The negroes, why aren’t they optimistic?”

Baldwin rubbed his chin and grinned at Cavett’s joke that blacks had even been granted “the ultimate accolade” of starring roles in television adverts. Then, when it was his turn to speak, he demolished the consoling notion that the arc of American history bends towards justice.

“You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” he said, pointing out that whites did not welcome blacks into their churches, unions, neighbourhoods or schools. “It’s not a question of what happens to the negro here, the black man… The real question is what’s going to happen to this country.”

Raoul Peck’s award-winning documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, cuts from this talk show scene to recent confrontations between heavily armed police and Black Lives Matter protesters. Its message – Baldwin’s message – is clear: until the USA’s white majority confronts its complicity in a system that holds down and brutalises African-Americans, progress will remain an illusion.

Peck discovered Baldwin’s writing in his late teens. I Am Not Your Negro is a condensed version of a conversation he’s been having his whole adult life. “Baldwin is not somebody you just read and forget: he’s somebody you come back to,” Peck says.

The words in his film, all of them, are Baldwin’s, read with authority by Samuel L. Jackson. Many are taken from a book the author never finished called Remember This House, linking the lives and untimely deaths of King and fellow civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

Peck also draws extensively from The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin’s essay about the ways the movie industry justifies white supremacy and absolves white cinema-goers of blame. Baldwin’s argument is underscored with clips, from John Wayne gunning down Indians and Stepin Fetchit’s grotesque caricatures of negritude to Sidney Poitier’s performances in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and In The Heat Of The Night – films considered progressive at the time.

What would Baldwin write about Hollywood in 2017? “You have the answer already,” Peck says. “When you hear those words, written forty or fifty years ago, and they ring exactly accurate today, the conclusion is that nothing has really changed.”

After two slates of all white nominations in the major categories, the Academy signalled its commitment to diversity this year by awarding Best Picture to Moonlight, a story about growing up gay, black and poor. I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for Best Documentary, but Peck scoffs at the idea the awards represent meaningful change.

“I had to fight at every stage of the process, because I was not dealing with an industry that was ready to acclaim me and claim me. That happened when it was finished,” he says. The film took him ten years to make: it took Jenkins seven years to get financing for Moonlight. “What we need and what we claim is a share in the power, meaning the decision to green light films.”

In one of the documentary’s most powerful sections, Peck edits together shots of the violent police response to uprisings in Watts, Newark and Detroit in the 1960s with clips from Ferguson, Oakland and Baltimore in 2014-15.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

We see Malcolm X holding up a Nation of Islam newspaper headlined ‘Seven Unarmed Negroes Shot In Cold Blood by Los Angeles Police.’ Medger Evers carries a sign reading ‘Stop Police Brutality’. It is hard to make the case for progress when three unarmed black fifteen-year-olds were killed by police just last month, in separate incidents in Texas, Connecticut and California.

In 1957, Baldwin was living in Paris when he saw a photograph of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts surrounded by a hostile mob on her first day at a formerly all white school, and resolved to come home to join the struggle. Peck hopes his film will have the same effect on its viewers, expanding the ranks of people protesting against institutional racism and white supremacy.

“We have been consoled repeatedly by small successes, but when you look back to the fundamentals – the amount of black unemployed, the number of blacks in prison, the number of blacks living in bad neighbourhoods, police brutality cases… Whatever the statistic is, you need to face that reality,” he says. “The crazy thing about the film, and I keep repeating it, is how come something that was written forty years ago rings so true?”