A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that so many African-American actors earned Oscar nominations this year, at least compared to recent years.
But a provocative new film opens Friday that has a lot more to say about race relations in this country than any list of minority Oscar nominees can.
It’s called “I Am Not Your Negro,” and it also happens to be up for an Academy Award, albeit in the little-noticed category of Best Documentary.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is ostensibly a cinematic version of an unfinished work by African-American writer and essayist James Baldwin.
In 1979, Baldwin proposed a book about America as seen through the lens of his three good friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He never got beyond about 30 pages worth of notes on the men (who had all been assassinated before the age of 40). But filmmaker Raoul Peck has crafted a documentary out of those scattered notes, along with lots of archival footage, and the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.
As effective as Jackson is, and as important as Malcom X, King, and Evers are to the Civil Rights movement in this country, it’s James Baldwin in his own voice that is the charismatic center of this film. In the 1960s he was a popular presence on the lecture circuit and a frequent guest on the Dick Cavett Show.
Baldwin is convinced that the fate of America is inextricably entwined with the fate of African-Americans.
“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” he says.
If I understand Baldwin (and Peck’s) argument, the reason race relations continue to haunt this country is because we have unresolved guilt issues over slavery.
He says some white Americans deal with their guilt with racism, resorting to racist name-calling like the N-word.
Other white people cope with their guilt by denial, seeking solace through escapist entertainment (he’s particularly hard on Gary Cooper and Doris Day movies).
And still others — well-meaning liberals, say — seek black approval as a way to assuage their guilt. Baldwin says the perfect illustration of this comes in the 60’s film, “The Defiant Ones,” in which a black convict risks his own escape by trying to help a racist white convict. White audiences cheered the black man’s sacrifice, while black audiences judged him a fool.
Most of the footage of Baldwin is 50 years old, and the words Samuel L. Jackson narrates were composed almost 30 years ago. But the issues raised are, unfortunately, as relevant and potent now as then.