Based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, this is an important piece in the jigsaw of America’s Civil Rights Movement. But it is so much more. Baldwin was attempting, in his final work, to link together the lives, criminally cut short, of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the lesser known civil rights activist, Medgar Evers into a coherent whole. And Raoul Peck does full justice to that unfinished work. He does so by allowing plenty of space for Baldwin to speak his own wonderfully eloquent words rather than allowing others to speak for him.
And the key message that this fine intellectual has for his white neighbours; America does not have a Negro problem but instead, he makes abundantly clear, America has an unresolved problem with race. Peck, in this fine documentary, gives plenty of room for Baldwin’s thesis to be aired and, by interspersing the narrative with some contemporary footage, brings the message bang on up to the present day. Full marks.
For far too long, the ruling elites in the USA have kept the fiction of the American Dream alive both at home and abroad. That Baldwin was able to so clearly deconstruct that fiction was to his eternal credit. But he was something of a lone voice. Now all and sundry are starting to see the reality behind the Hollywood and Disney mirages. Today, the United States of America, after a century of lording it over the rest of the world, is slowly but surely turning in on itself. In a tsunami of personal debt, drug addition, domestic violence, gun slaughter and endemic obesity. The once invincible American Dream lies in tatters. And amidst these ruins the ruling class must resort to its only weapons left on the shelf; mass incarceration of the ethnic population alongside a return to a racist, divide and rule policy.
That these policies should be brought back into play and that they should be applauded by huge swathes of the white population would have been of no surprise to Mr Baldwin. No surprise at all, because Baldwin understood so clearly that America had never really come to grips with its own foundation – one based on genocide of the Native Americans and the barbaric criminality of African slavery. These twin brutalities have become hardwired into the American psyche so that two centuries on, their national government could murder five million peasant farmers in South East Asia with impunity. So convinced of their god- given righteousness that a mere sixty years ago, lynching of Afro Americans was considered quite normal in the Southern States. And still that mindset persists. America has the world’s highest rates of State incarceration and again it would be no surprise to Mr Baldwin that the majority of those incarcerated are from the Black and ethnic communities.
The other great American documentary of our times, a sister work if you like, is the Ava DuVernay documentary, 13th in which the viewer is shown a harrowing account of how the misuse of the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution has facilitated the imprisonment of so many poor young Black men. Seen together, these two documentaries show just how ingrained is racial prejudices within white American society. The reality is so shocking that one cannot help but weep. And when the tears finally abate you know, without a shred of doubt, that Baldwin’s thesis has still not been grasped by the vast majority of white Americans. The election of Trump to the Presidency is testimony enough of that disheartening fact.
Somewhat ironically, it was Baldwin’s white contemporary, a young Bob Dylan, that did grasp the enormity of the problem that white America still faced. And it is to Peck’s credit that he found space in his powerful documentary for a brief few lines of Dylan’s Just A Pawn in Their Game. And every time you think that all the superlatives have been exhausted on the young firebrand, just re-read these lyrics to appreciate just how advanced this young white wordsmith was. That Baldwin and Dylan would share a platform on numerous occasions is no accident. They were, in those days, beautiful kindred spirits. Here are those lyrics and I trust Mr Zimmerman will forgive the breach of his copyright. I do so for the best possible motives.
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
You’ve got more than the Blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,
And the Negro’s name
It is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
The deputy sheriffs, the solders, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all
Like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
Read the whole poem. Listen to Dylan singing it. Watch the two documentaries. And when we have finished weeping we had better do some damn thing about it.