I realise I‘m coming to this one later than most people, and its been on telly and everything, but they had a Sunday afternoon showing so I decided to pop and see what I‘d missed. It‘s good, isn‘t it? And very, very relevant.
Starting as an attempt to reconstruct a book that never got written – Baldwin‘s account of the murder of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evans and Martin Luther King, it becomes much more – a discussion on US American racism, and the complacency of White Liberals who are appalled by the most vulgar forms of open racism, but don‘t recognise their own complicity.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Baldwin had been living in Paris for quite some time, not believing that it was possible for a black man to live safely in the racist USA. Inspired by the 15 year olds marching defiantly into newly desegregated schools, he felt he could no longer be a passive observer, and moved back “home” (though he says clearly that while he had missed his friends and family, he felt nothing for the symbols of US supremacy).
We see plenty of clips of Baldwin on panel shows, calm, erudite, but hard as nails. He is not hopeful about the current state of the Union, but he believes change is possible. This depends primarily on a serious change of attitude from White Folks. Asked by a white academic why he’s always talking about race, he eloquently explains why having the wrong colour skin in the USA can get you killed.
And yet he doesn’t believe that racism is inevitable. Earlier in the film, he reminisces about a white teacher who gave him books and encouraged him to think. A lot of white people out there are arrogant and ignorant, but that’s their problem, not his.
The FBI, of course, had a file on Baldwin, worried not just about an eloquent black man, but one who was openly gay. This isn’t discussed much in the film, indeed there is a section in which Baldwin describes an early relationship with a girl where they had to leave their homes at different times and never appeared in public together.
In amongst the chat show discussion, Baldwin treats us to some very interesting film criticism. He explains how he identified with the so-called Indians against John Wayne, and is scathing about the docile romantic comedies starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Perhaps more controversially he had some doubts about Sidney Poitier. Poitier was the black actor that it was acceptable for white liberals to like, and Baldwin points out that although he was allowed no sexuality on screen, he was unable to hide his smouldering potential – with male and female co-stars alike..
We see a clip of the liberal anti-racist film “The Defiant Ones”, where a fleeing Poitier and Curtis try to board a moving train. Curtis can’t quite manage it, so Poitier jumps off to join him. Baldwin notes that while white liberals cheered this display of inter-racial solidarity, the black audience with which he watched the film was incredulous that the Poitier character could be so dumb.
Baldwin does not plead for acceptance. He knows that he is as worthy as any white person and demands to be accepted for who he is. It is, then, maybe apt, that its the righteous Samuel L Jackson who narrates the text from Baldwin’s writings.
The film is still only four years old, so it was made when the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was starting to resonate, and the slogan appears on some of the banners shown in some of the footage used in the film. And yet, so much has happened in these four years. A more confident and combative black-led movement has taken to the streets. Baldwin would thoroughly approve.