In 1979, James Baldwin set out to write a book that would tell the story of America through the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But by the time Baldwin died in Paris in 1987, 'Remember This House' was still unfinished. Raoul Peck's bristling and poetic documentary I Am Not You Negro - which screened to packed audiences here at the Berlinale this week - seeks to give us the final chapter.
The film has the urgency of Baldwin's vision. That vision argues for the end of race: a worldview that is humanist above all. The documentary fuses archive footage of the novelist and poet giving interviews and lectures with records of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and more recent events such as the Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and the litany of racist police killings that continue to rock America. In the process, Peck produces something of a curse poem: its invective is stirring and meant to provoke.
Missing is an examination of how Baldwin's sexuality was just as integral to his philosophy as his race. When the author of Giovanni's Room calls on us to love our brothers and sisters, he is not only asking us to remove the barrier of skin colour. He wants us to build a house that truly encompasses all. The film was up for one of the Berlinale's LGBTI awards, but it makes only passing reference to Baldwin's sexuality and the enormous impact it had on his relationship with his publishers, agents, the black community as well as his own output as a writer. Of Malcom X - who had a profound impact on him - Baldwin wrote:
I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable, from love.
The nature of Baldwin's literary achievement as well as his relationship with key literary figures such as American poet Langston Hughes are also not mapped. Complexity is curtailed.
Where I Am Not Your Negro shines is in its sophisticated examination of cinema as a reflection of a society in which things have gone array. Peck's provocative juxtaposition of jejune Hollywood musicals and comedies with images of lynched black bodies could be dismissed as a cheap gimmick were it not so true: both were often contemporaneous. Forget the American dream. This is American Psycho.
'We had many other Trumps before this one,' Peck said at Thursday's screening in Berlin. 'We share the same history. It's a problem of the whole society. You cannot say you are innocent after seeing the film.'
Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary is like one of Baldwin's strongest sentences: Nothing can be changed until it is faced.