I Am Not Your Negro is one of the most important films of 2016, but it has received scant attention, beyond being nominated for an Oscar. It expresses the African-American experience by transcending political philosophy and social theory to engage the emotion and empathy of the viewer. Using movie clips, newsreels, television interviews, and the poignant and elegant words of James Baldwin, it guides the viewer to enter the celluloid world and experience, with the protagonist, what it has meant to be black in America.
The documentary relies heavily on film artifacts from 1940–1980, yet it feels as fresh and current as if the speeches had been written last week. As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations (and certainly we have enacted numerous laws that eliminate segregation, favor diversity, and punish racism), the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.
With his crisp Oxfordian erudition, Baldwin explains to Dick Cavett in one series of clips and in a debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union hall in another what it was like for a black man growing up surrounded by popular culture to which he could never belong. As children he and his friends put on cowboy hats to mimic John Wayne as they shot at imaginary Indians, never realizing until much later that the enemy they were shooting “was me.” He notes bitterly, “They needed us to pick their cotton, and now they don’t need us at all. So they’re killing us off, like they killed off the Indians [in movies].”
As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations, the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.
Instead of presenting the black experience through a didactic, lecturing, and angry harangue, director Raoul Peck immerses us in the experience through carefully selected film clips, some showing the “Stepin Fetchit” stereotype of the grinning, scraping, terrified Negro servant; others showing the pathos of the black child trying to pass for white, as in Imitation of Life, or black characters sacrificing their own security or happiness to save a white companion, as in The Defiant Ones; or, more often, entirely obliterating the black race from typical Hollywood films that required the black viewer either to identify with the white protagonist or step entirely out of the story. (Doris Day films, with her platinum blond hair and characteristically white costumes, are noted in particular.)
I believe this documentary, and the Doris Day musical clip in particular, influenced the sudden surge of racial criticism against La La Land during the final runup to the Oscars: viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized as an appendage of the white jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) — or so the argument went. Ironically (and significant to Peck’s thesis) Academy members didn’t even notice this whiteness at first, as they lavished LLL with fourteen nominations. I suspect they became abashedly aware of it only after watching I Am Not Your Negro (which they were required to do in order to vote for the Best Documentary category) and atoned for their oversight by voting Moonlight as Best Picture (read my review of the Awards fiasco here).
And that’s the point: as whites, we don’t even see the problem until it is pointed out to us. And then we go overboard in the other direction, as the Academy did in selecting Moonlight at the last minute. Peck’s argument — and the argument of many black activists — is that white Americans simply take for granted that what they see on the Hollywood screen, the television screen, the Facebook screen, and the textbook page looks just like them. Because whiteness is presented as ubiquitous and universal, white Americans learned to feel entitled to that sensation. So when we hear an impassioned “Black Lives Matter!” we often respond reflexively, “All lives matter!” We completely miss the point that “all lives” has seldom included “black lives.” Not culturally, at least. And saying, “I’m not racist,” or “Many of my friends are black,” even if it’s true, misses the point as well. We may very well not be racist. Most of us probably aren’t, in fact. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.
Viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized.
Toni Morrison makes this point in her novella The Bluest Eye, in which a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, wants desperately to look like Shirley Temple, whom she watches at the movie matinees every Saturday. Even Pecola’s own mother shoves her aside and prefers the pretty little white children whom she cares for as a domestic servant. I Am Not Your Negro demonstrates powerfully what it’s like to grow up knowing that you are inherently unlovable and the antithesis of cultural beauty or heroism.
As a young man, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he could move freely in public without the sensation of being watched, feared, and suspected. Nevertheless, he returned to the US frequently to lend his voice to the Civil Rights movement. In 1979 he was commissioned by McGraw-Hill to write a book, Remember This House, about his personal remembrances of three assassinated black leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin never completed the book, but the 30 or 40 pages he did write are powerful and eloquent, and they form the central storyline of I Am Not Your Negro, narrated in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson. The sections that focus on these three men, told with intimate home movies as well as official news footage, are some of the most impassioned of the film.
As a result of this documentary I came to a better understanding of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and why the response “All Lives Matter” is irrelevant and trivializing. But I didn’t come to any sense of a solution. Half a century later, despite desegregation, affirmative action, welfare, fair housing laws, reversed cultural appropriation, a black president, and a white population fairly begging to be inclusive and non-racist, we’re still dealing with some of the same problems. Where do we go from here? Baldwin suggests that whites “invented the nigger,” by which he means created the trope of the black who is defined as rapist, violent, lazy, foolish, incapable, and immoral, and that “it can’t be fixed until whites can figure out why.” He also had harsh words for the NAACP, believing that it created class distinctions of its own by privileging light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks. Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?
We may very well not be racist. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.
After watching the film I began to contemplate the black experience through the lens of the women’s movement. Women, too, suffered from the way they were portrayed culturally, through art. Women, too, had to watch “their kind” stand in the shadows or the sidelines of the movies while male protagonists saved the day. Like Baldwin, I can remember playing cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood children in the 1950s; I don’t remember any of us wanting to be “Miss Kitty.” Also like blacks in the movies, girls were taught through the movies (especially in the 1950s) that a woman needs to be slapped around a little bit to calm her down and make her more compliant, and that she needs to give in to a man’s passionate, if unwanted, embrace because “no” really means “yes.” We also learned that bad boys were good, and we set our eyes on marrying one of them as the ultimate goal.
What made the difference for women? It wasn’t saying, “Women’s Lives Matter.” Everyone already knew that. Women mattered in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the nursery, in the bedroom. Men were wont to say with a patronizing chuckle, “Without women the human race couldn’t even continue, God love ’em.” But it was belittling praise. Women were also told how they mattered in lyrics like these:
Hey! Little girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger
You needn't try anymore.
For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I'm warning you — (Burt Bacharach, “Wives and Lovers”)
My friends and I used to sing along to those subversive lyrics with their catchy tune while teasing our bouffant hair and painting on our eye makeup, never realizing how songs like these were holding us back from the truth that “Girls can be anything.”
Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?
Where women did not matter was in the workforce and in the marketplace of ideas. Here’s an example: in the 1970s and ’80s my husband and I wrote several books together, almost a book a year. He would do the research and write the outline; I would write the actual book. We published the books under his name, and they sold like hotcakes. Our biggest seller was High Finance on a Low Budget, selling over 300,000 copies in a dozen years. When it came time to write the 6th edition, he didn’t have time to update it, and I balked at being the ghostwriter again, so we published it with both our names. It was 1992, after all, and I had a financial résumé of my own by then — I was the editor of a monthly financial newsletter called “Money Letter for Women,” and I spoke frequently at investment conferences. Sadly, that 6th edition sold fewer than 4,000 copies. The next edition was published without my name, and it sold like hotcakes again. It wasn’t my husband’s fault, and it wasn’t the publisher’s fault. The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want my name on the cover of that investment book.
Twenty-five years later, that wouldn’t be the case. Now women practically dominate the nightly news as political pundits and expert guests. If I were writing an investment book today, no one would ask me to use my initials instead of my name. This is what I think made the difference: a generation of parents and teachers began telling little girls, “You can do anything. You can be anything.” It was said in school, in homes, in books, in movies. And everyone began to believe it.
The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want that woman's name on the cover of an investment book.
Black Lives do matter, but it’s not enough to matter. Mattering leads to victimhood and paternalism. In Africa, blacks built civilizations, led tribes, cultivated lands, created art, and fought wars to protect their turf and their way of life. In the antebellum South, blacks worked in the blazing sun while the master provided their housing, their clothes, their food, and their healthcare (meager though it was). Post-Civil War, they continued to receive food, shelter, and healthcare from the “government plantation.” James Baldwin complained about government paternalism in the Cambridge debate, declaring calmly and forcefully that the black man should be seen “not as a ward, and not as an object of charity, but as one who built America.” He added, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
Now, nearly 40 years later, his words seem as timely as if he had spoken them yesterday. And yet I think Baldwin would be pleased by some of the changes in media. Films like Hidden Figures do offer the message that blacks — and black women at that — can do anything. Moreover, black actors are now being cast in parts where being black doesn’t matter, and that’s a good thing. Think of Denzel Washington in Flight, for example. The role of the alcoholic pilot who successfully lands a damaged plane could just as easily have been played by Tom Cruise — or by Meryl Streep, for that matter. We have come a longer way than Peck’s documentary might suggest.
Black Lives don’t just matter. Black lives can do anything. Maya Angelou wrote about the humiliation she felt at her high school graduation when the white (of course), male (also of course) school superintendent proudly told everyone about the progress his administration was making in the school district. He told them about the new science labs at the white high school, and the wonderful new athletic fields they would be installing at the black high school. Maya was stunned. The black students mattered, yes, but they wouldn’t be scientists or mathematicians. They would be athletes. August Wilson (a black playwright) does the same thing with his black characters in Fences, when young Corey has only two options available to him, a football scholarship or the Marines, and his brother Lyons is a jazz player. By contrast, Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is determined to start a business because he knows that in the absence of an education, business is his only path to success. On the night when he invests his father’s insurance money in a liquor store with two of his friends, he says to his ten-year-old son Travis, “Son, what do you want to be? Because you just choose it and you can be it. Anything at all.” That his son could have such opportunity — the infinity of choice — matters to Walter.
Hansberry knew that Travis could be anything, because that’s what her parents had told her. Her parents counterbalanced the white cultural bias she saw in the movies and on the streets with a constant parade of black poets, writers, and activists who visited their home. She knew such heroes as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin personally. And armed with that knowledge — I can be anything! — she became an educated, talented, successful playwright.
Could it be as simple as that? Or am I being naïve? As a white woman do I even have the right to suggest it? All I know for sure is that all the government programs of the past 50 years have made little progress, and the demands made by the official “Black Lives Matters” organization are focused on more government programs with more government subsidies. More paternalism from the government plantation. Could the solution be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, “You can do anything. You can be anything”? Maybe not. But maybe it’s worth a try.