In the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the racial “ferment” in the United States, three prominent activists were assassinated within 5 years of each other – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The circumstances of their deaths were as different as their ideologies and views on racial upliftment, but they are all united by the impact they had on their contemporaries, and the legacy they left behind for the future of the black freedom struggle across the world – shockwaves felt to this day in the continual fight against oppression.
Friends to all of them was James Baldwin, legendary author and activist, caught between multiple worlds of marginalisation as a black gay man in the revolutionary world of the 1960s. Baldwin positioned himself somewhere between the integrationist, civil disobedience politics of MLK and the more radical vision of Malcolm X, and was both denounced by radicals like Eldridge Cleaver and hailed as the literary voice of the Civil Rights Movement by many in it. In his writings, Baldwin keenly captured the absurdity and inherent anger of his position in his time, and of the position of black America – an absurdity manufactured by centuries of exploitation and oppression.
Two decades after his death, little has changed for either black or queer people in America (and the world over) despite seeming superficial progress, and Baldwin’s words remain as relevant as ever. Haitian director Raoul Peck’s new film, “I Am Not Your Negro”, attempts to contextualize his words for our times through an ambitious project – completing Baldwin’s last, unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” in cinematic form. This new trailer, which expertly intercuts Baldwin’s own passionate voice with the sombre, powerful narration of Samuel L. Jackson and images of black movements throughout history, gives a glimpse of the film’s navigation of that history – the history of America. The aforementioned assassinations are framed as crucial points of reference in this two minute trailer, which centres around one question – Why does America need the Negro? It is a question that underscores, in many ways, the very basis of racial and class exploitation. Perhaps the answer to this question can explain, to an extent, why in this world the oppressed can only have freedom and a distinct identity in a constant state of violent revolution, of battle – and never in rest.
If the film manages to deliver on the promise of the trailer, it will most certainly not be a pretty story, but it will be a crucially important one. Perhaps it will also be a story of hope; to paraphrase Baldwin himself, the oppressed can’t be pessimists – because they are alive.