It’s been said that timing is everything. Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro, opening in theaters in the wake of Georgia representative and civil-rights icon John Lewis’ public feud with President Trump, is proof-positive of that. Owing as much to recent films such as Selma and Birth of a Nation as it does to Hidden Figures and 13th, I Am Not Your Negro is required viewing.
In 1979, gay author Baldwin set out to tell his story of America through the lives of three murdered friends—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. He only got as far as writing 30 pages of notes for the unfinished book he had titled Remember This House.
Peck combines phenomenal vintage footage of Baldwin (who died in 1987) with Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceovers for Baldwin’s writing, including letters he sent to his agent. If only Baldwin knew how prescient his words were—about everything from race to television—when he spoke (and wrote) them between 40 and 50 years ago.
With the murders of Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965), and King (1968) as the backdrop, it’s fitting (and frustrating) that Peck was able to find parallels between the racial violence of the distant and recent past, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Anyone familiar with Baldwin’s writing is sure to find inspiration from hearing him speak in the film. Among the most unforgettable film clips are Baldwin’s 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, an interview on the 1963 Dr. Kenneth Clark TV program The Negro and the American Promise (which also featured King and Malcolm X), and speaking engagements such as the one at Cambridge University (1965).
Baldwin, who says he was not a member of any particular black group because he was “never in town to stay” and that his function was to write the story as a witness and get out, without realizing it, became “the great black hope of the great white father.” He even earned himself an FBI file in 1966, in which he is described as “dangerous,” leading to his name being included in the FBI’s “security index.”
I Am Not Your Negro is not to be missed. DVD special features include an interview with director Peck, Q&A sessions with Peck and Jackson, and more.
The Howard Brookner renaissance that began in 2015 with Brad Gooch’s stunning memoir Smash Cut, about his relationship with the late filmmaker, continues with Aaron Brookner’s lovingly rendered doc Uncle Howard. As the doc begins we see Howard’s nephew Aaron in the process of searching for archival footage from Howard’s first film, Burroughs: The Movie, the acclaimed 1983 documentary about gay writer William S. Burroughs.
The rumored footage is stored in “the bunker,” the storied Bowery apartment in which Burroughs lived, later inhabited by gay performance poet John Giorno. Giorno, who has become the keeper of the footage, initially makes things difficult for Aaron, but once Aaron gains access, a whole world is revealed to him.
With Uncle Howard, Aaron Brookner, who was seven at the time of his uncle’s passing, has done a marvelous job of creating a many-layered tribute to the man he describes as his “hero.” There are fascinating biographical details about Howard—for instance, in spite of his parents’ wish for him to attend law school, Howard attended film school at NYU. And the interviews with Howard’s mother, Elaine, are alternately amusing and heartbreaking.
Additionally, the movie within the movie, about the lost Burroughs footage, leads to Aaron interviewing Burroughs’ literary executor and heir James Grauerholz, gay writer Darryl Pinckney, film producer Lindsey Law, as well as filmmakers Jim Jarmusch (sound recordist for Burroughs) and Tom DiCillo, and theater director Robert Wilson, among others.
Although the sight of the lost Burroughs film footage will be a highlight for a certain segment of the audience, the emotional heart of the film is when Aaron interviews Howard’s ex, model-turned-writer Brad Gooch. The scenes with Gooch pack a wallop, detailing the end of Howard’s life and the production of Howard’s final movie, Bloodhounds of Broadway. In a vintage video-diary segment in the heartrending doc’s final minutes, Howard pays tribute to his agent, Luis, who was another casualty of the plague. It’s safe to say you will probably never hear the Pretenders’ “Hymn to Her” the same way again.
Ultimately, Brookner’s tribute to his uncle reminds us that Howard’s passing, and that of Mapplethorpe and countless other creative people lost to AIDS, had an immeasurable impact on the culture of New York City and beyond. It’s a reminder to never forget these people and the legacy they left behind.