Oscar-nominated film brings the prophecy of James Baldwin into today’s world

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, James Baldwin was one of the nation's most prominent authors, public speakers, social critics and civil rights activists.

A new Oscar-nominated documentary opening today explores his life and legacy.

Jeffrey Brown has our look. It's part of our series Beyond the Red Carpet.

And a warning: It contains offensive language.

JAMES BALDWIN, Author/Civil Rights Activist: There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: His words never really went away, but the writer James Baldwin, speaking here on public television in 1963, feels as relevant as ever.

JAMES BALDWIN: I'm terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don't think I'm human.

NARRATOR: "The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."

JEFFREY BROWN: The clip is from a new documentary that draws a portrait of the artist, though not as a traditional film biography, and of the fractured and racially divided world he shone a searing light on.

NARRATOR: "I was free only in battle, but never free to rest."

JEFFREY BROWN: It's called "I Am Not Your Negro."

RAOUL PECK, Director, "I Am Not Your Negro": James Baldwin is probably, for me and for many other people, one of the most extraordinary authors in this country, black or white. And he is somebody who changed my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Raoul Peck is best known for documentaries and dramas about the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and "Sometimes in April" about the Rwandan genocide.

Born in Haiti and raised in the Congo, Peck says that, for him, James Baldwin was an early and abiding influence about how to see and encounter the world.

RAOUL PECK: It gave, suddenly, an explanation to feelings that I had towards racism, toward opportunities, toward politics and justice and injustice, you know, a lot of things that, as a young man, that you have, but because there are not so many authors where you feel you are represented, or the same on cinema. There were not so many films where you saw your own narrative on the screen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, that voice.

RAOUL PECK: That voice, and to feel you belong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924 and spent his youth there. He later lived for years in France, where he felt he could live more freely as a black gay man.

He became known for essays, such as "Notes of a Native Son" and "The Fire Next Time," novels including "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Giovanni's Room," and much more, including his role as a public commentator, debater and witness.

JAMES BALDWIN: Again, like most white Americans I have now encountered, they have no — I'm sure they nothing whatever against Negroes. That's really not the question.

No, the question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is a price we pay for segregation. That's what segregation means, that you don't know what's happening on the other side of the world because you don't want to know.

NARRATOR: "I was in some way in those years, without entirely realizing it, the great black hope of the great white father."

JEFFREY BROWN: The film uses Baldwin's own words and writings read by Samuel L. Jackson, particularly a short manuscript he never completed about three men he'd known, all of them assassinated before the age of 40, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King.

As a film credit puts it, the film is, in a sense, written by James Baldwin.

RAOUL PECK: So, my job is to find the book, and to recreate it, and which is then the film for me. That was, of course, the line and the storyline that I needed to construct that film.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's interesting. So, to make the film that he set out to do, but wasn't able to finish.

RAOUL PECK: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

So, that's why, as a filmmaker, I feel that I was just the messenger. I was just the person in charge to put it together, but he already wrote it. That's why I was very proud to be able to put "directed by Raoul Peck, but written by James Baldwin," because he wrote every single word in the film. I didn't add anything. I deconstructed, but I didn't — wrote it.

JAMES BALDWIN: What black people have to do is try to 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his film, though, Peck has done what Baldwin, who died in 1987, could not: connect his time to ours through images of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and more.

RAOUL PECK: When I started 10 years ago to work on this project, it was because I already felt that something was wrong. It was for us, you know, scary, because it was actually something we were working on.

And now we have visual of that, images. And it made the film more urgent for us, but it didn't really change the origin or the needs for this movie and the need to go back to Baldwin, because Baldwin gave us the fundamentals.

NARRATOR: "Well, I am tired. I don't know how it will come about. I know that, no matter how it comes about, it will be bloody. It will be hard. I still believe that we can do with this country something that has not been done before. We are misled here because we think of numbers. You don't need numbers. You need passion. And this is proven by the history of the world."

RAOUL PECK: He was already a classic, and he wrote those things 40, 50 years ago.

And watching the film, you think that he would have — he wrote that in the morning, the morning before watching the film, because those words are so accurate. They are so prescient, you know?

And so it back-fold, that you can do it better.

JEFFREY BROWN: "I Am Not Your Negro" will compete in the best documentary category at the Academy Awards on February 26.

From Washington, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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