Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary about the great American author and essayist James Baldwin is neither a biographical film nor a typical talking head documentary, with various experts and narrators explaining to us, the regular people, the importance of the people and events depicted on screen. It’s an essay film, built around notes Baldwin compiled for a project he ultimately abandoned, a personal history of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, African-American activists who were murdered in the few years between 1963 and 1968. Samuel L. Jackson, in a hushed, yet determined voice, narrates Baldwin’s notes, and Peck freely cuts between them, recited over archival footage both past and present, and images of Baldwin himself lecturing, participating in panel discussions, chatting with Dick Cavett and generally just being himself (the fear in his eyes as he drives around Mississippi street with Evers is palpable, as is his anger at being condescended to by an aged white professor on Cavett’s show). The result is a rambling, discursive film that captures the essential genius of Baldwin’s work, the uniqueness of his mind and the eloquence and power of its expression.
But far from merely illustrating Baldwin’s magnificent words, which might otherwise be allowed to ossify into mere literature and history, Peck deftly, abruptly links the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s with the state of America today. Moving freely between Dr. King in Selma or Chicago and protestors in Ferguson, or match-cutting between ordinary people today and photos of lynchings past, adding and removing color to blur the signals we use to distinguish images of now and then, we see that the progress we collectively told ourselves we’d made was an illusion, that things really aren’t much different now than they were then. Increasingly it seems to me that, as the left sold out the first Reconstruction for the sake of the Presidency in 1876, so they sold out the second in the 1990s, trading mass incarceration for the monetary support of a devastatingly amoral financial services industry (much of which is explored in Ava DuVernay’s very fine documentary 13th). Moving from Baldwin’s late 70s reflections on the 60s to the police killings of the 2010s and the Black Lives Matter movement, Peck shows not the progress of civil rights, but the continuity of the struggle for freedom. And Baldwin’s words, deeply sad yet hopeful in spite of it all, are all the more tragic for their distance.
Lately I’ve been watching Eyes on the Prize, the massive 14 hour PBS documentary series that aired between 1987 and 1990 and chronicled the Civil Rights movement from 1955-1985 . Watching newsreel footage from Birmingham and the assaults on the Freedom Riders, I was willing to believe that that was another America, one that didn’t exist anymore. The last two weeks, and a little more careful thought, have shown me just how naive I was. All my life, the dominant narrative of Civil Rights has been one of progress, usually framed in the terms Bobby Kennedy is quoted using in Peck’s film, how “Black America” has done so much, how “they’ve” come so far in recent years, and how great it will be when “they” really are equal (to “us” is implied, as Baldwin puts it “overwhelmingly corroborat(ing) the white man’s sense of his his own value”). Baldwin demonstrates the obvious fallacy in this line of thinking: it is morally deficient White America, a society founded on the subjugation of those they define as Other, that needs to make progress, and it is White America that continuously refuses to do so, out of fear, out of self-interest, out of self-hatred. Baldwin rejects the whole notion that Black Americans are striving to become equal: what they’re striving for is the power and freedom to operate as Americans, for that is what they are: they are among the earliest Americans, they’ve been here four hundred years. Because Black history is American history. And the story of America is far from over:
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others–do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!