by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a rare thing: a dream rediscovered.
When African-American writer James Baldwin died in 1987, he was working on an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, concerning three civil rights activists: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., three men assassinated for their political beliefs and for the color of their skin. Baldwin knew them personally, with varying degrees of intimacy. However, by his death he had written only 30 pages of Remember This House, a project close to Baldwin’s heart, and the source material for Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro.
I Am Not Your Negro is a resurrection, an awakening of something thought lost. Just don’t expect an accurate replication of what Baldwin had once intended. This is no delicate excavation job—it’s a ninety-minute sensory pummel.
In addition to Remember This House, Peck orchestrates other Baldwinian artifacts: letters, essays, speeches, and interviews. Where Baldwin’s person is clearest—the interviews and speeches—the footage is largely left alone. A man made fierce by his powers of perception, Baldwin mesmerizes, particularly as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. Besuited with a gaping smile, dimples almost geographical in extent, Baldwin is visually arresting. But it’s his command of ideas, language, and morality that reaches through the screen to shake you by the scruff of the shirt. Where Baldwin is physically absent and startlingly present, in his writing, Samuel L. Jackson narrates, uninterested in impersonation, concerned only by the translation of Baldwin’s sentiments.
These remnants of Baldwin are not sufficient for crafting a movie. Peck, an experienced Haitian filmmaker who has produced both features and documentaries, creates meaning through collage, punctuating Baldwin’s words with visual and auditory stimuli. Peck deploys everything from archival footage, photographs, music, classic Hollywood film, old commercials, contemporary news, and, slow-crawling scenic shots. Baldwin wanted the three civil rights icons of Remember This House to “bang against each other” by virtue of their contrasting lives and beliefs. Peck’s brash arrangement of material bangs against Baldwin’s words in powerful crashes: the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter collide as separate battles in a larger struggle. In Baldwin’s words: “The present is the past.”
I Am Not Your Negro is not the life and times of James Baldwin but a reflection of what he witnessed and came to understand. The film leaves out much in the Baldwin biography; for example, there is scant mention of his fiction or plays. That’s because Peck is focused on Baldwin’s lens on American life and culture, and directs that particular prism toward the modern day. Unlike Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin didn’t provide a vision, he provided insight, and it’s his powers of perception—logic and emotion twain—that drive the film.
Baldwin’s interpretation of American history is enough to make a KKK member blow his cone. Rather than emphasizing the inherent differences of white and black America, as two racial tribes with a bloody and divisive past, Baldwin posits American condition and culture as inextricable from blackness. Baldwin stated, “What the white man needs to do, is try and find out in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man.” Like Baldwin, Peck has the gift of reframing history to ask questions of the present, invoking Baldwin’s words to interrogate racial issues in modern society.
Loss permeates the movie. On one hand, there are the lynched black bodies surrounded by their killers. On the other, the loss of great American intellectuals. Not only the subjects of Remember This House, but also Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play Raisin in the Sun (the title taken from Langston Hughes’ poem) and Baldwin himself. The deaths of these preeminent individuals are tinged with the wistful romance of what might have been: bright lights snuffed out too soon—a bitter-sweetness not permitted when confronted with the premature deaths of victims like Emmett Till.
What is I Am Not Your Negro specifically about? No one thing—not Baldwin nor his era, not now nor the current state of affairs—and yet it’s overall meaning drops fully formed like an apple to the head. In this way, it’s reminiscent of Gil-Scott Heron’s sprawling song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which is also summarily powerful when taken whole. I Am Not Your Negro is a manifesto, a riff, a rant, a way of life, a backward glance, a look ahead, and a forthright challenge. As all encompassing as only dreams can be. What happens to a dream deferred? This one explodes.