James Baldwin's tough love for America

Baldwin’s words in Raoul Peck’s film indict us, but they also help us envision a new future.

I walked up to the ticket counter at the AMC theater in Denver and said to the young—maybe Latino—cashier, “I Am Not Your Negro.” He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “What?” he said. There was a pause. I was flustered. I wasn’t sure if I should repeat myself. “Um . . .” he finally said. “We don’t have that one.”

I went back to my smartphone and found another theater just five minutes away with a showing. At this theater, the woman in front of me in line, a young black woman with an elegant headscarf, handled the question with more grace than I had. She said, “One for the James Baldwin film.”

The James Baldwin film, I Am Not Your Negro, is a documentary by Raoul Peck that takes the words of James Baldwin’s unfinished final manuscript Remember This House and transforms them into a contemporary meditation on race, culture, and politics in America. The words of the film are almost entirely Baldwin’s, read by Samuel Jackson, mixed with clips from interviews with Baldwin and other figures from the civil rights movement. The film moves back and forth between historical and contemporary footage, reminding the viewer continually that this is not a piece of documentary history but commentary on the present moment. There are images from Ferguson and Times Square and photos of all the unarmed black men killed by police in 2014 and 2015.