This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
By this point, you might have heard about I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s beautiful and moving documentary about James Baldwin’s writing and activism on race relations—and if you’ve heard of it, you likely already know you should be on your way to see it. Peck’s documentary has received laudatory reviews from almost every major news outlet and film critic and boasts a score of 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as of publication. It’s an undeniably excellent film and a much-needed tribute to both Baldwin and the racial politics of the 1960s and ʼ70s.
The documentary style of I Am Not Your Negro feels fresh and unprecedented because it includes few outside sources and reflections on Baldwin—rather, its focus is on Baldwin’s own words and voice. Video clips, old photographs, and excerpts from classic films are artfully paired with Baldwin’s texts, providing cultural context to his work. It feels, more than anything, like a new way of reading Baldwin that engages all the senses and does all the Googling and researching for you in order to bring any obscure references and intertextuality you might have missed to the forefront. It surrounds viewers with Baldwin’s words, image, thoughts, and voice (even though it’s actually Samuel L. Jackson’s voice narrating).
The only shortcoming of Peck’s film is its almost complete erasure of Baldwin’s homosexuality. His gayness is mentioned only once in the course of the film, and even then, it’s presented in a quote from an FBI report that says Baldwin was rumored to be a homosexual. This only adds to the stigma Baldwin experienced around his sexual identity, and it’s disappointing that the film never examines his suffering or acknowledges his significant contributions to queer literature, activism, and history.
While the civil rights movement achieved tremendous progress for racial justice, it was often hostile to queer people. Baldwin was one of the few prominent gay members of the movement, and his homosexuality was, at times, an obstacle to his acceptance within it. I Am Not Your Negro chooses not to explore these conflicts and struggles from the interior of the civil rights movement. The film focuses on racial politics through Baldwin’s eyes, but it’s not necessary to ignore the other complexities of his life and his identity to tell that story. We should be able to consider it alongside his other achievements without smoothing it into the background in service of the idea that racism was the only prominent or important oppression in Baldwin’s life. Throughout history, too many queer people of color have been asked to choose between their racial and their sexual identities, and we shouldn’t accept the erasure of one legacy when highlighting another. It’s time to show the multitudes we contain.