Last Friday, I saw the James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” and I seriously cannot recommend it enough. It has some amazing 4k b-roll of Times Square and rural America, as well as restored footage of the Baldwin-Buckley Jr. debate in 1965, set against the tired groan of Jackson’s voice speaking Baldwin’s words. If you’ve already seen the Netflix documentary 13th, it probably won’t provide very new information. If nothing else, the film itself works best as a revitalization of Baldwin’s indelible voice, given new life through Samuel L. Jackson’s. That’s partially what Ta-Nehisi Coates sought in writing Between the World and Me, wanting to bring Baldwin-style commentary (à la The Fire Next Time) to the Obama era. This film, as it seems, serves the same purpose. Oddly fitting that it should come out now as a sort of bookend to the first black presidency.
But aside, it’s nice to imagine Baldwin, a film aficionado, taking pride in having finally written a screenplay, if not incidentally. When thinking back on the film, I think of Baldwin’s influence compared to those he wished to examine (Malcolm X, MLK, and Medgar Evers). It made me consider the relationship between art and criticism. It made me think of A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism (out now in paperback) and how I still need to read it.
Another social critic worth mention is William Jelani Cobb (featured in 13th), staff writer for The New Yorker. He has covered perhaps every racially-charged event over the past 20 years, from contradictions and exploitations surrounding the 1995 Million Man March, to the false martyrdom found in ‘90s hip hop. His latest work, “Prodigy of Hate,” details the trial of Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof.
I became a fan after an event we’d held with him, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a few others, streamed live from the Coolidge Corner Theater in November. The topic of their discussion was “When Will France Have its Barack Obama?” Cobb opened his statements with an eight-minute preamble on the centrality of race in American history, his thesis being, “when we understand American progress, it is aided and facilitated by this dynamic of trying to maintain appearances in a global stage,” speaking on the utility of racism, used in early U.S., as a means of adhering the newfound country’s identity.
After listening to him speak, I found his book The Devil & Dave Chappelle, a collection of essays published in 2007. His take on The Dave Chappelle Show (and Richard Pryor’s rejection of “[Uncle] Tomism”), while frozen to the event itself, can be easily extricated to what those events have spiraled into. Highly recommended alone for Cobb’s succinct wit. Plus, there’s an interview with Octavia Butler that’s a must for any creative type.
If you’re looking for something to read after seeing the film, I recommend checking out The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, Hope in the Dark, and, of course, The Devil and Dave Chappelle. For those who want to take Baldwin’s words home, the film’s manuscript is now available along with his nonfiction Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son. We also carry his fiction Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Another Country.