Story by Jarron Parker / Contributing writer
For the last week of Black History Month, Nashville’s historic Belcourt Theatre screened Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary focused on James Baldwin and Peck’s vision of his unfinished manuscript.
Peck attempts to finish the manuscript “Remember This House” through film to shed light on the racial issues faced by people of color in America during Baldwin’s time, many of which are chillingly familiar to the problems of today. Baldwin’s manuscript came about when he decided to write a memoir that recalls his personal experiences with Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers — all of which were civil rights activists assassinated before they reached the age of 40. Following Baldwin’s death in 1987, the manuscript was never completed and left at only 30 pages long.
Peck’s film explores Baldwin’s stance on how African-Americans were portrayed in cinema during the civil rights era. One actor that is highlighted is leading man Sidney Poitier. The film explains that actors like Poitier were supposed to be more so seen and not heard. Peck explains how leading Hollywood men such as Poitier and Harry Belafonte were often exploited and sexualized, despite the lack of any personal intentions or desires to be viewed as “sex symbols.”
Peck also examines Baldwin’s thoughts on how being black was seen as inferior in cinema such as in the film “Imitation of Life.” In one clip, the biracial character is embarrassed by her black mother, who shows up unexpectedly to her all-white classroom. The girl is then taunted for being part black. Peck incorporates an interview Baldwin did in which he speaks on organizations such as the NAACP and how he felt they were often plagued with classism issues that did more harm than good for the black community. Peck’s examining of these issues highlights how they still affect the black community today.
Black people are often separated from one another based on class, similar to how Baldwin felt with the NAACP. Black people are also often objectified in film and media, still. In the film Baldwin makes a thought-provoking point in which he says the white man created the “negro,” and it’s up to the white man to dismantle the stigma that has been created. Baldwin is shown as an honest and straightforward civil rights figure, who wanted to explore exactly what it meant to be black in America. His honesty is depicted through an intense interview on The Dick Cavett Show. He explained that although he may be an educated, productive member of society, he is still not treated as such because he is first judged for being black.
After the film concluded, retired Tennessee State University chairman of Africana Studies Amiri Al-Hadid hosted a post discussion. Al-Hadid spoke with TSU associate professor Isaac Addae on his personal ideas on the race issues examined in the film. Al-Hadid also had the pleasure of meeting Baldwin at the age of 20.
“When you listen to Baldwin, you’re hearing Malcolm but when you listen to his vision you’re hearing Martin,” said Al-Hadid. Dr. King is often associated with integration, while Malcolm X is associated with separation and the economic self-determination of Blacks that caused Baldwin to become conflicted in his opposing views. Al-Hadid makes the point that this film is crucial in the advancement of racial relations today.
“This film reminds us that there are battles that still have to be fought,” said Al-Hadid.
Although our nation has come a long way in equality, minority groups are often at a disadvantage compared to some of their white counterparts. Peck’s documentary on Baldwin isn’t meant to point the finger at the majority, but rather, to highlight the modern problems that are eerily similar to the ones that we thought we had overcome as a nation and are often overlooked.