Last week I saw the new film I Am Not Your Negro, an exploration of American racism through the words of James Baldwin. Consisting mostly of notes from a never-published book, but including passages in some of his other works and his television appearances, I Am Not Your Negro couples Baldwin’s arresting capacity for capturing the depravity of white supremacy with images, video footage, and contemporary popular culture that place it in a visual and auditory context. The result is a journey as every bit as hair raising and unnerving as you would expect.
Some of the most disturbing moments in the film come when Baldwin – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson – speaks of the slaughter behind American innocence while footage (usually from films) depicting the most profoundly white fantasies of suburban bliss and consumption are splashed across the screen. At one point, the film shifts from this representation of white America as it wishes to see itself to white America as it actually is – and here, while Baldwin warns of the murderous rage that the emptiness of white culture creates in the heart of white Americans, clips from the film Elephant, a wrenching exploration of the phenomenon of school shootings in America, flickers slowly across the screen.
It is a devastating moment, filling Baldwin’s awful prophecy to the brim and dropping it, like a sack of bricks, on the heads of the audience. This does justice to one of Baldwin’s best gifts; his ability to bring to life the darkness and desperation of the psychology of white people under white supremacy. (In that sense, actually, the film couples very well with Get Out, which focuses mostly on the consequences to black people.) This does not, however, usually come coupled with much political analysis, at least in the traditional sense – Baldwin is not concerned with advising any political party or suggesting any specific strategy to civil rights organizations. Reflecting after the film, it occurred to me that in his focus on the psychology, rather than strategy, of political culture, Baldwin actually shares a lot with the postwar pluralists, known for their discussions of alienation, status anxiety, and the desire to belong.