Decades ago, acclaimed writer and thinker James Baldwin noted that our “concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics.”
This was before Twitter. Before Netflix. Heck, Baldwin wrote that before the Internet could even be imagined.
But his words — voiced over flashing scenes from contemporary game shows and daytime talk TV in the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro — feel as current as ever.
“He saw through it already,” director Raoul Peck says of Baldwin, “because he was analyzing the fundamentals. So his judgment is still present.”
People are bombarded with images that teach “something really frightening about the American sense of reality,” Baldwin says in the film, images “designed not to trouble but to reassure.”
With I Am Not Your Negro” out in theaters this Friday, Peck seeks to finish an unfinished Baldwin manuscript for a book that would “tell his story of America through the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” the film’s opening sequence declares.
And within this weighty exploration squarely fits a major theme: the representation of black and white people in Hollywood, and the ways entertainment and pop culture reflect a warped story of America.
“He wrote extensively about Hollywood movies,” Peck says of Baldwin. “He was probably one of the best critics in the country.”
“He shows us how, basically, Hollywood fabricated the image of the Negro,” Peck adds. Baldwin explained how “entertainment is not innocent. That everything we have been fed and everything we see today — it’s even more messy than it was 40 or 50 years ago — is part of an ideology, part of a storyline, part of a narrative that we don’t own, that we didn’t decide upon, as black people.”
Baldwin, who died in 1987, served as one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, writing novels, poetry, plays, social critiques and journalistic dispatches.
In his attempt to give voice to Baldwin’s view of America, Peck juxtaposes scenes from cinematic classics and old-time Westerns — King Kong, The Pajama Game, In the Heat of the Night — with archival and contemporary footage of protests, police violence and black children living under segregation. Meanwhile, we hear Baldwin’s words, either spoken by the man himself or voiced by Samuel L. Jackson.
Peck shows us John Wayne in movies such as the 1939 Stagecoach and scenes of cowboys killing Indians that, given historical context, had us “watching a genocide,” Peck says. “Somehow it was to us entertainment.”
We see a film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, showing Tom forgiving those who killed him. Baldwin greatly influenced public perception of the 19th-century novel with a 1949 critical takedown. In Peck’s documentary, he explains that he didn’t see Tom as a hero because he refused “to take vengeance into his own hands.”
“Heroes, as far as I could see, were white — and not merely because of the movies, but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection,” Baldwin says. “I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought vengeance was theirs to take, and yes, I understood that. My countrymen were my enemy.”
In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin explains ways in which the entertainment industry presented scenes to comfort some white audiences, not black audiences. For instance, there’s the climactic scene in the 1958 movie The Defiant Ones in which a pair of prison escapees chase a runaway train. The black convict makes it on, but he jumps off the train after the white convict can’t catch up.
While white liberals may have been relieved, Baldwin says in the documentary, black audiences were yelling, “Get back on that train, you fool!”
He continues: “The black man jumps off the train in order to reassure white people, to make them know that they’re not hated.”
Peck, whose 2000 feature Lumumba earned him worldwide acclaim, recalls feeling conflicted as he watched movies growing up.
For instance, he was proud to see Sidney Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — an educated, respectable, fully realized black man — but “you still had this very uneasy feeling” with this “very elitist image.”
“The message was, if you were a black person, in order to fit into the picture you need to be very articulate, very handsome, have a PhD, a doctor,” Peck says. “Otherwise, you don’t have any chance to get the girl in the movie. That was putting the bar very high for most black people.”
Baldwin articulates this uneasiness and describes how despite Poitier’s leading-man status, black actors such as him weren’t portrayed as sex symbols — they were almost asexual beings. With Guess Who’s, Baldwin says, black audiences felt “Sidney was, in effect, being used against them” to reassure whites.
While in one moment Baldwin is talking about Doris Day, in the next he’s talking about school desegregation and Evers’ assassination. So when he speaks about cinema, Baldwin is “giving us the key to what this particular film was transporting besides entertainment,” Peck says. “He gave us all the layers.”
These layers are even more poignant in 2017, when popular culture has never been more powerful. Look no further than the White House, where the president arrived after successfully utilizing the showmanship he perfected on prime-time TV.
Baldwin’s deconstruction of such a culture can still help us make sense of it all, Peck says.
“When you are watching this avalanche of so-called reality shows,” Peck says, “you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of that? Is it really reality or more a show? And if it’s a show, what does it do to you?”