As sacrilegious as it might seem, I'm going to begin a review of a film about the great writer and social critic James Baldwin with a quote from a recent episode of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." Stick with me. I haven't lost it.
In the January 19 webcast, Seinfeld — who's about my age — sits across from Cedric the Entertainer, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Muhammad Ali. After describing the late boxer as "a magical, magnificent man, the most magical man of his time," Seinfeld observes, "In that time, everything was larger than life: the Beatles, Martin Luther King. All of these guys were mythic. When I was 15, [I thought,] This is what the world is, I guess. All these amazing people live in it. This type of human we don't see anymore."
Is that not profoundly, heartbreakingly true? Here are some other magical people who were alive in my lifetime: Hemingway, Lenny Bruce, Picasso, Sartre, Sinatra, Malcolm X, Kubrick, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Arthur Miller, Einstein.
Director Raoul Peck's (Lumumba) film essay I Am Not Your Negro is a masterfully crafted, fiercely intelligent and eloquent documentary work that makes an incontestable argument for Baldwin's inclusion on that list of the magical. For anyone with only a casual acquaintance with the writer's award-winning output and social activism, the movie is certain to prove a revelation. It provides a fascinating, insightful introduction to one of the 20th century's most fascinating, insightful figures.
The film's concept is strikingly original, the furthest imaginable from that of a traditional doc. Peck labored on the project for nearly a decade, meticulously selecting archival images, television footage and music while sifting through Baldwin's prodigious oeuvre for portions to squeeze into its 95-minute running time. Along the way, the director had two brainstorms. First, that the author's words should be the only ones heard on the soundtrack (some are read by Samuel L. Jackson, whose voice interweaves seamlessly with Baldwin's). And second, that the movie would essentially complete a project left unfinished when Baldwin died in 1987.
Remember This House was envisioned as a meditation on the slaughter of three prominent friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — and on the future of race relations in America. Baldwin left behind 30 pages. Peck animates them with power and poetry, then conjures the final chapters out of a brilliant mix of Hollywood clips and ripped-from-the-headlines footage.
While listening to passages from several of the author's seminal works, we see Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. We find ourselves in Ferguson, Mo. The shot of a police officer standing on the throat of a female protester in the '60s eerily foreshadows Eric Garner's videotaped suffocation by members of the NYPD in 2014. Needle drops like Buddy Guy's "Damn Right I've Got the Blues" lend a potent jolt to the juxtaposition of contemporary optics with Baldwin's lyrical prose while underscoring his legacy as both poet and prophet.
"The truth is," Baldwin wrote, "this country does not know what to do with its black population." Peck's transfixing film offers a portrait of the artist as an unshockable man. Though, now that this country has devolved into one that doesn't know what to do with a growing number of populations, it's difficult to imagine even a visionary like Baldwin predicting the rise of Trump World.
I Am Not Your Negro will be presented by the Vermont International Film Foundation on Tuesday, February 7, 7 p.m., Alumni Auditorium, Champlain College, in Burlington. $5-8.