I went to see 2016's I Am Not Your Negro last night, a documentary based on the notes for an unfinished book by James Baldwin. Director Raoul Peck, who is a former Minister of Culture in Haiti, juxtaposes Baldwin's words, performed by Samuel L. Jackson, about Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luthar King Jr. with footage contemporary to those figures and footage of violent race discrimination of the past few years. At times awkwardly edited with a few poor creative decisions, mainly it is an effective demonstration of how the problems in U.S. race relations have persisted to-day.
Now playing in only one theatre in San Diego, I was surprised to hear the showing I attended was sold out. I had to sit in an aisle seat next to two giggling teenage girls playing with their phones and I dreaded having to sit through the movie with them. Fortunately they were surprisingly well behaved. Almost the entire audience was white, the exception being an elderly black couple who became excited at the end of the film when they recognised someone they knew in an ill considered montage of black people to-day staring plaintively at the viewer. Raoul Peck seemed to have known he was making a movie for white people about black people like he could see that theatre last night. And much of what Baldwin had to say related to how preoccupations and misconceptions about race that existed in the minds of white Americans. At one point, in footage from The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin confronts a Yale professor who asks why Baldwin focuses so much on race instead of on simply becoming a man or a writer. Baldwin explains to him with a somewhat fevered irritation that systemic racial inequality is an obstacle in such endeavours for black Americans along with cultural oppression. How can you focus on writing when you're afraid for your life?
The film presents many problems I think many people assumed had been solved in the 60s but the juxtaposition of current news footage makes it clear how sadly relevant Baldwin's observations remain.
I saw the movie at the Landmark cinema in Hillcrest, one of my favourite theatres in town though I hadn't been there in a while. I showed up early so I could stop in Fifth Avenue Books only to find the placed had closed, permanently. This was incredibly disappointing--Fifth Avenue Books was an amazing place, selling rare and vintage books. I bought a 1942 edition of Bleak House from there and a second edition of Captain Blood. The books I purchased from their sections on nautical history, the rigging of ships in the age of sail, and the transatlantic slave trade have been an integral part of my research for my comic. These certainly aren't books I could've found at Barnes and Noble. Maybe I could've found them on Amazon but I wouldn't have known to look for them. I suppose they'll probably put another sushi restaurant in the Fifth Avenue Books lot, there seems to be a million of them in Hillcrest now.