I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is not necessarily a great documentary, but it is an essential one.
I offer this assessment in the spirit in which the film’s subject, the great James Baldwin, himself engaged issues of culture, life, and race. He didn’t seek simple answers, consensus, or authority; he sought to stir cultural discussion and debate through lucid thought and expression of principle. So that’s what we need to do–among other things, with this film. Let’s not, in haste, heap praise on it; let’s honor its subject by interrogating it with lucid reflection.
More than any other aspect of his performance, I’ve studied Baldwin’s public appearances closely. I know them well. The debate with Buckley at Cambridge. The Dick Cavett Show. The Kenneth Clark interview. Etc. They’re all excerpted in I Am Not Your Negro. Actually, we learn very little that’s new about this aspect of his life, and I’d say that there are more than a few additional televised interviews and debates–lesser known ones–that might have been brought to bear here. There’s a vaster archive to select from. Still, it stands as a not insubstantial achievement to remind us that he once made these famous remarks.
More to the point, I wonder whether or not it’s incumbent upon us, especially now, to challenge the rather reductive view Baldwin appears to have held of the relationship between film and media, on one hand, and race politics in the US, on the other. The documentary returns over and over again to his reflections on Hollywood and TV, and Baldwin is eventually quoted as saying that it all merely “reflects” the dominant culture and its views. We know better than this now–we’ve spent a long time theorizing various spectatorial positions vis-a-vis mainstream culture.
Whether this is a problem with Baldwin or with the film, I will leave others to decide. I will say this, however. Perhaps we can work to recover that aspect of Baldwin’s thought that points to a way out of this rather simplistic and formulaic reflectionism. There’s a glimpse of it in the film. At one point we hear Baldwin’s words as he contemplates the face of a black actor in a feature film–a face reminiscent of his father’s. The face shows a pain and a dignity not contained in the rather meager role written for the actor. This suggests something crucial that much of Baldwin’s other writing on TV and film neglected (at least as far as the documentary presents it); that there is always the possibility of subverting dominant culture by reading it against the grain.
The implication: critique via the postulate of reflectionism isn’t always the answer. Nor can it ever really be the best answer. The critic must remain attuned to the possibilities of subversive spectatorial subjectivity–to the assertion of spectatorial will at the expense of the construction of the work–in even the most unlikely of places. In a culture that denies and undermines so many subjectivities, reading against the grain has long been a source of pleasure and political opposition. Baldwinian lucidity–even in ways that Baldwin himself may have overlooked–demands that we take stock of this.
It’s vital, in other words, to combine Baldwin’s bold and lucid politics with art historian E. H. Gombrich’s rejection of what he variously called “historicism,” “holism,” and not unproblematically, “Hegelianism without metaphysics” (for the latter formulation, see In Search of Cultural History, p. 42). For Gombrich, the temptation to tie all things together in a culture was not only intellectually dishonest but politically dangerous, creating a climate where people are persuaded that individual volition and action are powerless, if not meaningless. When asked in this 1973 interview about the limits of cultural history and commentary (I would say, the limits of certain kinds of cultural history and commentary that favor explanations of the “spirit of the times” variety), he replied: “I believe that the patterns they [cultural historians and commentators] describe for us are also partly a product of their own abstraction. We know–and some anthropologists have stressed this– that there are always outsiders, scoffers, who are not easily taken in by the religion of the tribe. The idea of a completely monolithic culture doesn’t apply even to small tribal societies.”
This isn’t just a scholarly attitude. It’s potentially a philosophy. A philosophy that leads to a historical understanding and a reading practice based on the posture of the scoffer, the outsider who through an opposition to reflectionism seeks to empower fresh individual reading practices that turn products of the mainstream against themselves.