Decades before #OscarsSoWhite, the writer James Baldwin wrote, “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.”
In the incisive documentary I Am Not Your Negro, the distorted reflection of the United States of America is presented through movie scenes and media images underscored by Baldwin’s prescient words. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Raoul Peck, the film highlights the country’s deeply rooted racial problems and presents Hollywood movies as their ceaseless enabler. Though many of the films date back to the midcentury, they’re a judicious reminder of the ongoing need for increased diversity and cultural accuracy in film. For Baldwin and many others, representation doesn’t just matter – it’s a matter of life and death.
Baldwin wrote that he did not relate to the many film characters that served as caricatures of black people. He suggested distaste for actors like Stepin Fetchit, the comic actor billed as “the Laziest Man in the World” for his lethargic, dim-witted characters, as in Open the Door Richard (1945). Baldwin also said that Sidney Poitier, though celebrated for breaking down barriers for black men in film, often portrayed characters almost devoid of sexuality. Peck illustrates this with a scene from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where Poitier’s John Pence is shirtless but immediately covers himself when someone enters the room. Pence appears child-like and embarrassed to be seen sans top. His extreme politeness and gentlemanly demeanor is a means of sanitizing his blackness for white audiences.
Yet at the time of Baldwin’s writing, Poitier was an anomaly. Most black representations on-screen were racist caricatures like black mammies and Uncle Toms. Peck shows a black-and-white clip of black children dressed in bunny costumes, hopping around a grassy field with big, fat smiles across their faces. These are not real images of black children – they’re played up for the cameras directed at white audiences.
This is especially haunting when juxtaposed against a series of photographs of Trayvon Martin and other young black men killed by white police officers in recent years. “We are living in a police state,” reads a sign in a photo from a civil rights march. These images illustrate the evolution of black slavery to mass incarceration as explained in Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Peck’s film may be releasing this year, but the issues it brings up have existed for centuries.
Ultimately, I Am Not Your Negro presents two very different experiences in white and black America through film as well as through the stories of civil rights heroes Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and Medgar Evers. In each film and true life tale, the black side of the story is never fully understood by white America – or worse, it’s misinterpreted or appropriated.
Baldwin brings up the film The Defiant Ones as a popular example of one-sided storytelling. The film follows two escaped convicts who are shackled together and must work with each other to survive. Sidney Poitier plays Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis is John “Joker” Jackson. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised the film as “a remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea – the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood.” Baldwin, on the other hand, saw a different film.
In a pivotal scene, Cullen and Jackson are running away from their captors to catch a train. Cullen makes it on but Jackson does not, and Cullen decides to jump off the train to be with him. Baldwin claimed white audiences applauded this choice – it reassured them they’re not hated. They’re not the bad guys. Black audiences, according to Baldwin, thought that Cullen should have stayed on the train.
Hollywood’s goal to please mainstream white American audiences still rings true today. Though calls for diversity and inclusion are hot button industry issues, we have yet to see a total change in the way studios and networks approach diverse storytelling. This does not mean we need to call the PC police to run casting sessions or vet scripts. It simply means filmmakers need to truly open their eyes – widen their lenses, so to speak – and accept the feasibility of stories involving characters of different backgrounds and experiences. If, as Baldwin says, movies are a reflection of our reality, shouldn’t we at least make it look good?