#WhiteHouseSoWhite: "I Am Not Your Negro" illuminates America’s ongoing race problem

The Trump administration is the whitest in decades. "I Am Not Your Negro" confronts both past and present racism

Published February 18, 2017 4:00PM (EST)

Jeff Sessions; James Baldwin in "I Am Not Your Negro"   (Getty/Alex Wong/Magnolia Pictures)
Jeff Sessions; James Baldwin in "I Am Not Your Negro" (Getty/Alex Wong/Magnolia Pictures)

About two years ago April Reign decided to encapsulate her frustration at yet another slate of white Academy Award nominees by launching the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. The hashtag turned into a rallying cry for increased diversity not just in Oscar nominations but throughout the film industry.

And yet last year’s slate of nominees similarly lacked diversity in the four major acting categories, and people of color were virtually absent from all the other categories as well. That led to a new hashtag: #OscarsStillSoWhite.

When a number of celebrities considered boycotting the Oscars, President Barack Obama decided to weigh in. His remarks reinforced the idea that the Oscar nominations matter because they are part of a larger network of social institutions. Obama said the key question is "Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?"

While in many ways the Obama presidency disappointed those of us who had hoped that the election of the first African-American president would signal a significant change in U.S. race relations, there is little doubt that his White House helped raise needed attention to issues of racial injustice in this nation.

Now in a weird reversal of fortune, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the most diverse slate in history of nominees for the 2017 awards at precisely the same time when the United States has the whitest White House in decades.

For the first time ever, four black directors have been nominated to receive the best documentary feature award. Meanwhile the Trump administration has the most white and the most male Cabinet since the Reagan era.  Even more disturbing, the story of the Trump team is not just one about a team that's white, male and heterosexual; it is also about a slate that is perhaps among the most openly racist we have ever seen in our nation.

As Time reported shortly after the elections, Trump has been “choosing people who have shown hate toward immigrants, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people and women. And he’s giving them a huge amount of power to act on that hate.”

Today racism is running rampant in the White House, as evidenced in the ideologies of several Trump senior advisers, but also, as Matthew Rozsa has reported for Salon, the behavior of his staffers.

While it may seem uncanny that #WhiteHouseSoWhite has now replaced #OscarsSoWhite, there's little doubt that several major media figures are performing an important civic role in the Trump era. We have numerous examples of celebrities helping draw attention to the bigotry of the Trump presidency, from Meryl Streep's calling out Trump at the Golden Globe Awards to Michael Moore's reminding citizens that the Electoral College originated with racism.

What makes the Oscar nominations special in this regard, though, is the fact that a number of the films nominated for awards deal explicitly with race and race relations in America. Ava DuVernay's "13th" focuses on mass incarceration in the United States and Ezra Edelman's "O.J.: Made In America" covers the football star's criminal trial through the lens of race. But if there is one film on the list of nominees that should be required viewing in the Trump era, it is Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro.”

A. O. Scott’s review of the film explained that there's no better movie for pondering the question "is everything about race?" The film combines lyric beauty and brute reality as it forces viewers to confront the uncomfortable history of U.S. race relations and the structural inequalities that still persist in America.

In 1979 James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing a work in progress, “Remember This House.” The book was intended to be a radical, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. By interconnecting their stories, Baldwin hoped to create a book that could paint a picture of race in America. When he died in 1987, he had finished only 30 pages.

Peck’s film takes Baldwin’s text and uses it as the basis for a film that examines the uncomfortable history of racism in the United States. He blends the words of Baldwin, as spoken by Samuel Jackson, with footage of Baldwin. But rather than create a typical documentary (about Baldwin), Peck’s film is an artistic blend of Baldwin’s words and images of race relations throughout U.S. history.

As Andrew O’Hehir wrote in Salon, Baldwin was a unique voice: He was a “brilliant, exasperating and endlessly erudite black writer who belongs on any short list of the most important American intellectuals of the 20th century.”

Baldwin refused to fit into preconceived molds. He didn’t hate white people and he rejected the racial politics of the Black Panthers and the Black Muslim movements. He wasn’t a member of the NAACP because he associated it with the black upper class. He also focused close attention on the role of capitalism in racial inequality. As he put it, “White is a metaphor for power and it is simply a way for describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Baldwin confessed that when he was growing up, all his heroes were white. Such individuals were all he ever saw in movies. When he did see black men, they didn’t have anything in common with his father. They were completely unrecognizable. Pulling no punches, he said that this simple fact should be held accountable for decades of cultural violence whereby black citizens had virtually no positive representation in Hollywood of any kind. For Baldwin, the white-oriented culture industry in the United States fed a fantasy, one that led to an emotional poverty that he described as “bottomless.”

One clip in the film shows Baldwin when he appeared in a TV documentary called “The Negro and the American Promise.” Baldwin points out that the problem of race in America is the problem of America itself, of its inability to come to terms with a system that depends on marginalizing large classes of people.

“What white people have 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, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it," Baldwin says. "If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

That was in 1963. When Peck started researching his film nearly 10 years ago, he realized that America still had not been able to answer that question. So he took Baldwin’s words and his insights and blended them into a statement about America’s longstanding refusal to deal with the persistence of racism.

That is why the film doesn’t trace a linear history. While it offers viewers a rich archive of material from the civil rights era, it does so by blending it with images of the present and the deeper past. The film layers images from slavery to the civil rights movement and #BlackLivesMatter and asks us to recognize U.S. history not by how much it has changed but by how starkly things have stayed the same.

Alongside '60s-era words suggesting the “Negroes” are making progress, Peck puts up photos of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Peck shows us photos of lynching, intercut with clips of Doris Day.

Peck’s artful editing exposes the deep hypocrisies in the rhetoric of historical progress. It forces the viewer to not just see the persistence of pain and suffering but also how the myth of a great America has been its greatest downfall.

And that is how the film derives its urgent relevance for the Trump era. Shot well before Trump was elected, the film references Trump only once in a series of superimposed images of U.S. political figures. We hear Trump’s voice say: “I’m sorry I did this to you, but you’re going to have to get used to it. It’s one of those little problems in life.”

While the film leaves the quote there to hang, the viewer surely feels a deeper sense of discomfort than Peck could have ever imagined.

The quote comes from a 2015 interview Trump did with Chris Wallace on Fox News in which he “apologized” to the GOP saying he knew he would get the nomination: “I’m going to win. . . . You know, I’m not one of these other guys that goes down. I don’t go down. I go up.”

When Peck chose Trump’s quote to insert into his film he couldn’t have known that just as his film would be hitting U.S. theaters, Trump would be installing an administration into the White House that was set to undermine everything the civil rights movement stood for.

Peck imagined that his film would use Baldwin’s insights about the assassinations of Medgar Evars, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as a way to investigate his “experiences of racism and intellectual violence.” Little did he know that his film, which depicts King’s struggle for voting rights in Selma, would be released as Jeff Sessions, a man who once said the Ku Klux Klan was OK, called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and doesn’t think voter ID laws are a problem, would now be attorney general.

Time reported that “Sessions first became nationally known for prosecuting three black civil rights workers for voter fraud.” It further noted that Sessions opposes not only undocumented immigration and a path to citizenship, but that he has called for a fadeout of legal immigration.

And then there is Steve Bannon. When Bannon, who rose to fame as executive director of the alt-right Breitbart News, was named chief White House strategist by Trump, David Duke, former head of the KKK, called the appointment “excellent.”

Added Duke: “You have an individual, Mr. Bannon, who's basically creating the ideological aspects of where we're going."

Time reported that Bannon’s appointment also brought celebration from neo-Nazi groups, white nationalists and anti-Semitic people.

Bannon was the force behind Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. He now sits on the National Security Council.

And those are just two of the most horrifying examples of the Trump administration's racism. Trump’s entire team is infested with a racism the likes of which Peck could never have imagined would be the political environment for his film’s release.

What perhaps makes “I Am Not Your Negro” so powerful is the way that it combines a sense of urgency with a sense of wonder. There is so much beauty in this film about a reality that is so terribly ugly. The film is raw and sensitive, brutally honest and visually stunning. It doesn’t let you look away, but it doesn’t leave you desperate, either.

At one point in the film Baldwin explains that even though he refuses to whitewash the brutality of U.S. race relations, he remains an optimist. He is an optimist, he tells the viewer, because he is alive and refuses to give up. In this way, decades after his death, Baldwin offers viewers a model of optimism for the Trump era. It’s an optimism that's rooted in reality, in seeing things as they are, and in asking the hard questions no one wants to hear.

As Baldwin wrote. “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  It is hard to suppress the feeling that if we don’t heed his words, things could get a whole lot more terrible.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is currently showing in theaters across the nation. 

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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