Death has this way of making truth-tellers seem harmless. Alive, Martin Luther King provoked a president and divided a nation with his truth. Dead, he is an image on a commemorative place mat, his words safe enough for recitation by children.
This also holds, albeit to a lesser degree, for Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Dead, they were no longer dangerous. “We took out all the radicality of their legacy,” says Raoul Peck.
Peck is the director of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary built on 30 pages of notes James Baldwin wrote for a book he never finished, a meditation on race, America and his three murdered friends: Medgar, Malcolm and Martin.
The film, which opened in wide release Friday, is a melange of arresting images, film clips and music framing Baldwin’s lacerating words as heard in archival footage and in readings by Samuel L. Jackson. It is nothing less than a masterpiece, fully deserving of its rave reviews and Oscar nomination and it demands to be seen more than once. Trying to absorb everything it has to say in one sitting is like trying to catch Niagara in a teacup.
But what is most stunning about “Negro” is its prescience and, more to the point, what its prescience says about what America still is. Here are the words of a man who died in 1987 and yet, those words somehow contain Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson uprising, the election of Donald Trump and all the other broken promises.
“People finally say to you,” says Baldwin through Jackson, “in an attempt to dismiss the social reality: ‘But you’re so bitter.’ Well, I may or may not be bitter. But if I were, I would have good reasons for it, chief among them that American blindness or cowardice which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.” As he speaks, you are watching a kneeling Rodney King get kicked in the back of the head by an L.A. cop.
And you might, if you are African American, want to shout hallelujah at hearing those who blithely chastise your “anger” thus elegantly rebuked.
“There are days,” says Baldwin, “… when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here?”
And you might, if you are African American, want to bow your head and lift a hand to the ceiling, because you have wondered, too, but did not have the words to say.
“When the Israelis pick up guns,” says Baldwin, “or the Poles or the Irish or any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,' the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad n––r so there won’t be any more like him.”
And you might, if you are African American, just want to pat your feet and say Amen. Even now. Even still.
“The scariest thing,” says Peck, “is that it is so precise and dead on the point of what is happening right now. … We have been somehow in a sort of lethargy. We’ve been sleeping and we’ve been lazy. We’ve got Black History Month and we have Martin Luther King Day and we have new laws, et cetera, and we pretend as if everything is OK now. Which it’s not. We’ve just buried the corpse even deeper.”
If so, then “Negro” is a disinterment. More than a work of unparalleled brilliance, it is an urgent reminder that when it comes to race and America, the truth is not “safe.”
And it never was.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.