It’s not that I’m disinclined to write at length about Raoul Pecks’ I Am Not Your Negro (Magnolia, 2.3), which renders the impassioned life and times of the great James Baldwin with clarity and precision. It’s that I can’t think of anything to say except (a) “this is a sterling, well-edited, highly intelligent film that ought to be seen and reflected upon by everyone” and (b) “yup, that was Baldwin, all right…a lion and a prophet who lived a robust life.”
The only book of Baldwin’s that I actually sat down and read was “The Fire Next Time” (’63). It dug right down. Straight, astute, honest observations about the undercurrent of racial relations in the Kennedy era along with intimations of the militancy that would begin to manifest in the mid ’60s. But most of my impressions of Baldwin came from talk show appearances and magazine articles. It’s all in the doc, all in his words. He was a seriously tough hombre who didn’t mince words.
The basic story arc of Baldwin’s life — coming to terms with his apartness, artistic aspirations and anger at U.S. racism in the late ’30s and ’40s, moving to France (Paris and then St. Paul de Vence) in ’48, returning to the U.S. in ’57 to grapple full-on with the beast, rising to full cultural prominence in the ’60s and early ’70s, becoming a leading voice of resistance in a tumultuous time, harnessing his anger and fusing it with social criticism, poetry, demonstrating in marches, etc. — just gets you deep down.
The man had moxie and a bullwhip tongue. A gay man who retreated only to find his voice in Europe and then return home when there was nothing else to do, a man who came back to his native land with guns blazing…speaking truth to power.
I love this portion from his Wikipage: “During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin started to realize that he was gay. In 1948, he walked into a restaurant where he knew he would not be served. When the waitress explained that black people were not served at the establishment, Baldwin threw a glass of water at her, shattering the mirror behind the bar.”