The title of Raoul Peck’s fine documentary contains just the right note of provocation and of rebuttal to the patronising aspects of a racially-divided America. It centres upon the work of the novelist and writer James Baldwin who died in his sixties back in 1987. What is so shocking, and Peck knows this only too well, is that the film’s themes, and Baldwin’s stance, are still so relevant and contemporary. It reminds one a little of a recent much-discussed book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. Peck uses Baldwin’s unmistakable clarity of thought to have one last tilt at the racial antagonism that is still the stain on the whole American project.
Baldwin, who grew up in a very large family in Harlem in the 1930s was both gay and black and he was so disgusted by some aspects of his home country that he went to live in Paris. He remained connected to the black struggles and was a friend of three important black intellectuals and leaders. These were; Medgar Evers (who headed up the moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The film, which is based on Baldwin’s partially unpublished recollections, deals with the ideas and lives of these three men. He does not simply idolise these men but he gives them and their ideas the critical seriousness they deserve.
As noted, Peck doesn’t find it hard to intersperse footage from more recent times that illustrate the continuing racial problems. The Rodney King beating for example, used with deadly economy here, is still unwatchably brutal. And, as we know, from such recent events as those in Ferguson Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to resonate and motivate.
If all this sounds merely grim, or like a history lesson lecture that people would shy away from, then that would be to do the film a profound miscarriage of justice. Baldwin (who appears in sparkling form in 1960s televised debates at the Cambridge Union) is always an engaging voice and presence. The narration of his prose by Samuel L Jackson is also beautifully done. It is tragic that there hasn’t been more progress but this film is more than just a howl in the wilderness it is a finely constructed piece of filmmaking and a riveting watch in its own right.