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- Author: Robert J. Corber x
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The author reviews Raoul Peck’s 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro, finding it a remarkable achievement as a documentary that breaks with cinematic conventions and emphasizes the importance of listening as much as looking. The director has singled out Baldwin as the writer whose work spoke most directly to his own identity and experience during his peripatetic childhood in Haiti and Africa, and in I Am Not Your Negro, Peck aims to ensure that Baldwin’s words will have a similar effect on audiences. However, even as it succeeds in reanimating Baldwin’s voice for a new political era, I Am Not Your Negro inadvertently exposes the difficulty of fully capturing or honoring the writer’s complex legacy. As scholars have long noted, interest in Baldwin’s life and work tends to divide along racial and sexual lines, and Peck’s documentary is no exception. The filmmaker privileges Baldwin’s blackness over his queerness by overlooking the parts of The Devil Finds Work and No Name in the Street in which the writer’s queerness figures prominently.
The author reviews Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, finding that Jenkins’s lush, painterly, and dreamlike visual style successfully translates Baldwin’s cadenced prose into cinematic language. But in interpreting the novel as the “perfect fusion” of the anger of Baldwin’s essays and the sensuality of his fiction, Jenkins overlooks the novel’s most significant aspect, its gender politics. Baldwin began working on If Beale Street Could Talk shortly after being interviewed by Black Arts poet Nikki Giovanni for the PBS television show, Soul!. Giovanni’s rejection of Baldwin’s claims that for black men to overcome the injuries of white supremacy they needed to fulfill the breadwinner role prompted him to rethink his understanding of African American manhood and deeply influenced his representation of the novel’s black male characters. The novel aims to disarticulate black masculinity from patriarchy. Jenkins’s misunderstanding of this aspect of the novel surfaces in his treatment of the character of Frank, who in the novel serves as an example of the destructiveness of patriarchal masculinity, and in his rewriting of the novel’s ending.
How should scholars approach The Birth of a Nation, a landmark film in terms of technique, but also one that is deeply racist? One productive way is to consider the film alongside the significance of Confederate monuments, which were erected after Reconstruction to celebrate soldiers of the Lost Cause. Similarly, as scholars have explored, Griffith set out to rewrite the history of the Confederacy by depicting the former Confederate soldiers as brave and noble men who had successfully resisted Reconstruction. The film gained further traction – becoming a Ku Klux Klan rallying call – through Griffith’s exploitation of a central fear in the white racist imaginary: that if African American men became equal to white men, then they would insist on the right to marry white women, which in turn would miscegenate the South. The debates about Confederate monuments – whether to pull them down or leave them as testament to the South’s racist past – carries strong echoes with the debates about whether to cancel The Birth of a Nation, or whether to use the film as an example of dangerous white supremacy. The historian Thomas Laqueur has argued for the creation of ‘pluralistic landscapes’, which include a mixture of monuments that commemorate Black history to be placed alongside monuments of the Confederacy. However, as the afterword considers, Laqueur’s suggestions does not adequately consider the temporality of Black life in which the effects of the nation’s white supremacist past are continuing to unfold.