Remember This House was one of James Baldwin’s few “unfulfilled” projects, stalled at the thirty-page mark before he died in 1987 and was unable to finish it. The premise of the manuscript, which McGraw-Hill later sued his Estate for after advancing him $200,000 for something he could never complete, was to tie together through the medium of memoir three of the foremost civil rights leaders of the time: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X–all ultimately assassinated.
Writer-director Raoul Peck picks up where Baldwin left off, beginning our tale–if one can truly begin the tale of inherent racism in America at any one point in time–during a 1968 interview of Baldwin’s on the Dick Cavett Show. Expressing with frankness and eloquence all the rage, the double standards and the daily demeanment of being “the negro” in America, Baldwin serves, in a fashion, as an amalgam of the holy trinity of civil rights leaders. He was neither as militant as Malcolm X nor as “peaceful” as King or Evers. He distinguishes himself from them all by remarking on his place as the “witness” as opposed to the “actor.” As a writer, it was his duty to make change based on observation and the harsh truth contained within said observations.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the voice and persona of Baldwin shines through with every photograph and segment of archival footage. Given a sense of his fraught childhood, it’s easy to understand why Baldwin fled to Paris in 1948, for reasons, as he later explained to Dick Cavett, that included the certainty that nothing worse, discrimination and police abuse-wise, could happen to him there than it had on the streets of Harlem and New York in general. Moreover, he wanted an objective existence outside of what is called the “American black experience”–to be viewed as a writer, not “a negro writer.” In Paris, he found comfort in the radicalism of the Left Bank, but ultimately returned to New York not because of any sentimental emblem there, so much as the desire to be and remain close with his family.
His return to the United States also came at a time when he seemed to be needed most, as the turbulence and the riots brought on by segregation intensified “the negro problem.” Still, he never brings himself to “hate” the oppressor. Baldwin notes that because of his treatment from an encouraging teacher while in school, he never fully learned to despise white people the way he was “supposed to” or the way others around him did. His exposure to arts and culture at a young age–things most black males in his neighborhood did not partake of–gave him a different view.
This is, in part, is why he took so much more issue with Hollywood-ized portraits of America than most: none of it rang true with what he saw in his neighborhood. Interspersed clips of “classic” movies of the day within I Am Not Your Negro, from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to Love in the Afternoon, present a salient comment on Baldwin’s view of how white culture sees itself and is allowed to thrive so effortlessly on delusion and ignoring the existence and lifestyle of the black race. Somehow, it is always the responsibility of the black person to reassure the white person that they’ve done nothing wrong. This is the symbolism behind Peck’s use of The Defiant Ones starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. At the conclusion, Poitier’s character, Noah Cullen, has the opportunity to escape on a train, to free himself from the literal shackles that bind him to Curtis’ character, John “Joker” Jackson. Baldwin comments that, to “liberal” white audiences, this was a great ending, but to black audiences, all they wanted to shout at Poitier was, “What are you doing?!”
The starkest and most jarring use of other film clips comes in the form of Lover Come Back starring Doris Day as Carol Templeton. In a scene during which she makes martinis and contemplates her rival/love interest, Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson), Peck cuts to various scenes of black citizens who have been lynched–living (and abruptly dying) in an entirely different mode than the one peddled by mainstream pop culture solely for the consumption of white people fetishizing the American dream. This notion, too, comes under fire by Baldwin, who suggests that it’s so unsatisfying to most residents of the U.S. primarily because our system is based on one of numbers, not passion. And yet, history shows that it is always the latter that drives true and meaningful results. Perhaps this is why Baldwin ended up spending his later years once again in Europe.
As both a gay and black man, Baldwin’s perspective on having no place in the very country that begat him is particularly and unavoidably obtrusive to the white self-deception of “giving” minorities a place in America. In this respect, even the beloved Robert Kennedy is reamed by Baldwin for his “encouraging” statement in the mid-60s that, maybe, forty years in the future, a black person could even be president. Baldwin balks that white people saw this as a progressive sentiment, while black people, who have been on this Earth for longer, saw it as yet another false dangle of hope to keep them complacent. Like, “Oh if you’re good, maybe we’ll give you a few nuggets of power over an immense span of time.”
But it all goes back to the selling of a false and unattainable form of happiness primarily by the entertainment industry. Baldwin breaks down the dangers of media slung in this unrealistic manner by explaining that black youths, for a brief period in their childhood, do not realize the separation that has been created between them as “the other” and the white “majority.” Baldwin uses the analogy of John Wayne shooting the Indians (remember, this was still the term for Native Americans in Baldwin’s era–like negro for black) and a black person rooting for Duke until, suddenly one day, he has the epiphany that he, too, is on the Indian side of the battle.
“The nigger” is the invention of the white people, as Baldwin explains at the conclusion of the documentary. And, ultimately, “White is just a metaphor for power,” because that’s the color that’s had the monopoly on government and affecting change since the dawn of America’s “discovery.” Part of the endless struggle between the two races stems from the white person’s unnameable fear of the black person, and the black person’s mere desire to have the whites out of their way so that they might go about their ordinary business. “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.” If a white person can answer this, maybe the U.S. could make some genuine progress. But until then, any change that might occur will more than likely be, as Baldwin put it, “bloody.”
And really, this film should have been called I Am Not Your Nigger, but that might have have upset the delicate sensibilities of its white viewers.