Hearing and seeing the media use of the word ‘controversial’ to veil the violently racist and xenophobic speech from figures in new right-wing power structures, is a disturbing trend in this new climate of hyper-normalisation. As a writer and activist who’s words were far from normalised, the perception that James Baldwin was a controversial figure remains a questionable legacy that follows his important work.
It’s not an understatement to say that when I first picked up and read the pages of James Baldwin’s 1962 book ‘The Fire Next Time’, it had an immensely powerful influence on my own perspective about systematic racism. With brutal honestly and clarity, Baldwin’s words and prose have stood the test of time – and are relevant more now than ever before in history. To get inside Baldwin’s head in an attempt to make a biopic, wouldn’t quite do him justice without hearing his own words spoken by him. To tell this story, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck does just that as he looks at the impact of Baldwin in a new documentary film. ‘I Am Not A Negro’, is based on his unfinished novel ‘Remember The House’ and you can watch the new teaser trailer above.
“The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country — it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. Then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”
The film ‘I Am Not A Negro’ contextualises Baldwin’s perspective in relation to race in modern America, delivering his message using the writers exact words, archival footage and material including the original 30 pages of the unfinished book’s manuscript. Touching on the tragic assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the film examines the parallels between the civil rights movement and todays #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Baldwin first positioned ‘the Negro Problem’ in his book ‘A Fire Next Time’, by touching on issues in the context of both race and religion in the American power structure – “Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure”.
Cited as a great influence to Ta-Nehisi Coates, although Baldwin at the time was considered by some to be self-aggrandising his own prophetic vision, in reality his view was one that is hauntingly relevant today. An essential read, his words will sharpen your mind and at the same time contextualise a dark side American history rooted in white supremacist rage. While at times it may seem that Baldwin’s disillusionment leaves no answers to deal with our current times, it may also leave you with a sense of foreboding that he eventually left America for Paris – “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”
While we start to process the disturbing shift to the far-right across Europe and the US in 2016, we find ourselves asking what next? In this context, James Baldwin is essential reading although we may no longer have the option of considering an escape to France.
Presenting the complexities of our world today, the documentary will be narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and is set to release in the U.S in February 3rd, 2017 under Magnolia Pictures. Altitude picked up the film rights for the release in UK cinemas on 7 April 2017.