My first recollection of James Baldwin was a double-decker bus tour from downtown filled with "white internationals" looking to get a glimpse of the ole civil rights Harlem that no longer existed. There were a couple spots Uptown in the mid 90's that people "said" he used to live. Tourist would slide a tip to go upstairs and take a look at an unfurnished crack spot.
The next time I recall James Baldwin had to be my first year of Rice High School in Harlem. Some forgotten soul that I am thankful for today challenged me to read classic plays to pull monologues from rather than the contemporary monologue and scene books I was rummaging through. I jumped on the 2 train to forty-deuce and dug through the shelves of Drama bookstore until I came across a title that had a similarity to my namesake, "The Amen Corner." I was baffled by the way Baldwin was defining God's existence. It proved to be a good read and mature outlook, but I ended up choosing a piece from Dutchman to recite.
It wasn’t until 10th grade, after being intrigued with Richard Wright's Native Son, that I was put up on "Notes of a Native Son" by Baldwin. I remember being told not to read it because he was gay. Just as I was told to "Watch out cuz you know all the homosexuals are in the Arts, A," "You sure you want to be an actor?" Then the friend would look at me with a side eye. Whatever, I always knew the shit they tell you not to read is the exact thing you should. To say the least, Baldwin's essays were way over my head. His command of the language and writing style was so crisp, and up till then I knew nothing of his activism or sexuality. I proceeded to read through half the book, do a report in AP English on a few of the essays and that's it. I knew Baldwin! Can't tell me shit, plus I walked the same streets as him in Harlem. So, that's the extent of my Baldwin knowledge, it's pretty pathetic but at the same time I thought I knew something.
Okay. Start the movie. The documentary I Am Not Your Negro is directed by a Haitian brother Raoul Peck. Now, I know what you thinking, but our Haitian brothers know firsthand about fighting for freedom so they can tell any story of the diaspora. That being said, the tone and pace of this film is expertly executed. Samuel Jackson is an impeccable narrator. The film focuses on a three-year period based on an unfinished manuscript of James' titled "Remember This House." It takes a look at Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. All personal friends of James Baldwin. All three losing their lives in that three-year span. This film is not for the light of heart as several times I got chills listening to Baldwin's words coming out of his own mouth, painting a sober conscience of our present-day state as Americans. He speaks as a prophet and fortune teller and it's quite eerie. However, for those of us that know the pain to which he speaks, it's quite liberating. I suggest those that know a lot about James Baldwin to those that know nothing at all see the film. I imagine many may benefit from this perspective on American history. I will say this documentary lacks one very important thing, a solution. However, Raoul has used Baldwin's critical thinking so that you and I can be a part of that solve.