On Saturday, I made the scenic and now somewhat familiar trek from my home in the Upstate of South Carolina to the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a beautiful day, and downtown Asheville was brilliant with Appalachian music, Indian street food, microbreweries, bazaars, arcades, and hipster boutiques; to call it gentrification would be disrespectful. The small, independent and locally owned Grail Moviehouse was also busy with patrons—East Riverside liberals and Biltmore socialites caught up in the merriment of the occasion. Indeed, I Am Not Your Negro finally debuted in North Carolina over the weekend, and the Saturday matinee was so crowded that few latecomers found seats beyond the front row. By my informal count (yes, I counted), fifty-eight people turned out to the two o’clock showing of Raoul Peck’s Academy Award hopeful.
To be sure, the demographic unevenness of the audience there was the result of what we have come more and more to expect from so-called “urban renewal”—again, by my informal count, there were just three people of color in attendance, including my partner and I. Of course this most probably says more about the city of Asheville than it does about the reach of Peck’s film—a friend of mine recently saw the film at the Cinemark theater in West Philadelphia, where, I am told, the audience was overwhelmingly black and brown. While waiting for Peck’s documentary feature to begin, then, I recall feeling something of the uncanniness that perturbed me when I first watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). It was at a Carmike theater in southwestern New Jersey, and I remember being too distracted by the audience’s inappropriate laughter (or at least what I thought was a hardly appropriate reaction to Django’s scenes of subjection) to really concentrate on Tarantino’s nearly three-hour-long Academy Award-winning film. In fact, I focused most of my ethnographic attention on the audience, who seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the equally perverse comic relief afforded by the spectacle of slavery. After Saidiya Hartman, therefore, I am tempted to describe what I witnessed that evening as another problematic, but more recent manifestation of what we might call “antebellum enjoyment.” Peck’s I am Not Your Negro, on the other hand, offers very few jokes, even though it produces the same neoliberal effect: ephemeral catharsis without dangerous political consequences.
Map of Asheville’s East Riverside Urban Renewal Project c.1970
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On June 1, 1992, the New Republic published a small essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. titled “The Fire Last Time: What James Baldwin Can and Can’t Teach America.” “The puzzle,” writes Gates, “was that [Baldwin’s] arguments, richly nuanced and self-consciously ambivalent, were far too complex to serve straightforwardly political ends. … He was here to ‘bear witness,’ he insisted, not to be a spokesman.” “Baldwin’s basic conception of himself,” Gates continues, “was formed by the older but still well-entrenched ideal of the alienated artist or intellectual, whose advanced sensibility entailed his estrangement from the very people he would represent.” And this idea of “bearing witness”—what Adolph Reed, in an entirely different context, describes as “a justification for an aversion to intellectual or political heavy lifting”—is not just a provocation for Gates, but also, more significantly, for Amiri Baraka, who Gates twice cites, though some of Baraka’s “brief reflections” on Baldwin are here worth quoting at length: “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party is what is being presented through the writings and postures of men like [James Baldwin]. … In their anger and boredom the writers begin to do a little dance. It is known as The Martyrs’ Shuffle, in cocktail time. Won’t somebody please help them move? … And then perhaps the rest of us can get down to the work at hand. Cutting throats!” These words from Baraka form part of his 1963 polemic against Baldwin (and the South African-born Jamaican writer Peter Abrahams) under the title “Brief Reflections on Two Hot Shots.”
I call our attention to the writings of Gates and Baraka above because they reiterate one of Peck’s own preoccupying concerns with Baldwin: the chasmic divide (or “thin line,” as Baldwin mildly puts it) between “bearing witness” and political activism. In a sense, I Am Not Your Negro is a film about the witness/activist dichotomy—Baldwin’s fraught subject-position as a “witness,” and his indebtedness to the fallen heroes of the modern Civil Rights Movement, including Medgar Evers (d. 1963), Malcolm X (d. 1965), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (d. 1968). Lorraine Hansberry (d. 1965) also figures prominently in Peck’s film, as do Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) and Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) to name a few.
The documentary hovers around Baldwin’s existential “journey” back home to the States in order to pay his dues, so to speak. “Everybody else was paying their dues,” writes Baldwin, “and it was time I went home and paid mine.” Baldwin’s ambition to pay his dues, however, is thwarted by the asymptotic relationship he sees between the figure of the witness on the one hand and the actor/activist on the other. “I was to discover,” writes Baldwin, “that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed; nevertheless, the line is real. …I had to accept, as time wore on, that part of my responsibility—as a witness—was to move as largely and as freely as possible, to write the story, and to get it out.”
At the same time as he grapples with the witness/actor dichotomy, Baldwin also seems to be caught up in something of the Benjaminian chiasmus—the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s well-known distinction between “the aestheticizing of politics” and “politicizing art”—or, to put it another way, between what Gates calls “the beautiful Baldwinian polish” and Baraka’s clarion call for “Cutting throats!” Indeed, because of Peck’s thin description of Baldwin’s extracurricular activities—say, beyond the famous Cambridge Union debate—the demands on the viewer rise to figure out what it is, exactly, that I Am Not Your Negro might offer us in the way of a revolutionary political project—that is, insofar or as much as a film can inspire new political possibilities and strategies for today’s radical struggles. But the space given over to Baldwin’s debate with William F. Buckley is an especially telling example of how “bearing witness,” for Baldwin (as for so many black public intellectuals), often traded on performing for and in front of predominantly white audiences.
In the end, unfortunately, Peck’s Baldwin seems to renege on the latter’s promise to pay his political dues. Perhaps it is not so much that Peck missed such an opportunity as that Baldwin himself missed his mark. And, despite Peck’s interesting gloss on what, after Cedric Robinson, some might call the history of “racial capitalism,” it is ironic that Peck chose Samuel L. Jackson, the poster child for Capital One’s most recent credit card machinations, as the prophetic voice of James Baldwin. Ironic, indeed; here’s Jackson’s final voice-over: “White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.” To be honest, Peck’s ending was corny—so, our only political salvation is to wait for good white people to ask themselves “why it was necessary to have a nigger [sic] in the first place”? Really? Instead of turning the “white gaze” inward on itself, however, I would have liked to find in Peck’s film something edgier, maybe something to illuminate Cornel West’s controversial distinction, pace Toni Morrison, between Baldwin and the MacArthur Award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (if, indeed, there is any real difference between them at all).
To start, we might, for example, look closely at Peck’s treatment of Baldwin’s critique of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958). Peck begins this scene with the following quotation: “It is impossible to accept the premise of the story…”—an excellent start, and here Peck’s Baldwin is worth quoting at length: “When Sidney jumps off the train… the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful. But when black people saw him jump off the train, they yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool.’ … [The black man] jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they are not hated; that, though they have made human errors, they have done nothing for which to be hated”—and here I have added the ellipsis points and brackets in order to show how Baldwin’s original text has been edited or edited out of Peck’s film. And it is on this strange note—“they have done nothing for which to be hated”—that Peck decided to end this otherwise powerful scene. But here as elsewhere when questions, allegorical or otherwise, arise about Baldwin’s own politics, Peck transitions, at times vertiginously, away from the film’s thwarted denouement. As a result, Baldwin himself almost seems to allegorize Poitier’s character Noah Cullen, who, again, jumps from the train in order to save his white counterpart.
Theatrical release poster for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958)
As viewers, of course, what we really want here is to know whether or not Baldwin himself would have jumped. Black audiences, again, we are told, “yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool.’” “That didn’t mean that they hated Sidney,” writes Baldwin (and this is the part that Peck’s film leaves out), “they just weren’t going for the okey-doke. And if I point out that they were right, it doesn’t mean that Sidney was wrong.” Sometimes reading James Baldwin is, from my perspective, kind of like reading Franz Kafka. Perhaps this is what Gates means by “too complex to serve straightforwardly political ends”—or what Baraka calls “The Martyrs’ Shuffle.” In the end, then, a much deeper question nags: why is a writer who understood himself to be losing purchase on the modern civil rights movement now having a moment in the post-civil rights era? Simply put: why Baldwin, why now? Why, in other words, have we conjured up the spirit of James Baldwin to our service? In spite of the specific audience at whom the film’s title is presumably aimed, there is a particular sense, then, in which Baldwin is neither theirs nor ours. I can hear my own father now: “Watch out for the okey-doke!”
Garry Bertholf received his Ph.D. in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013. In August, he will join the faculty at Davidson College as an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies.