James Baldwin was an American writer who didn’t only write books, but also plays and poems. Besides this he also spoke out about various issues in American society, like race and sex. Het wanted to make the Afro-American experience clear to other and because of that he came into contact with (and befriended) Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of the eighties he was planning to write a book about his experiences with these men who were important for the civil rights movement. He wrote letters about what he was planning to write about and had started a manuscript. He passed away in 1987 from stomach cancer and thus the book was never written. Recently this documentary played in a local theater in Rotterdam, where director Raoul Peck was present. He told the audience how Baldwin’s books have been inspiring him for years. He wanted to make a film which would introduce him to a wider audience. He didn’t know yet in which way he would do it, until he got his hands on the manuscript. He decided to use that to make this documentary.
It is almost completely based on Baldwin’s manuscript (expect for some excerpts from interviews with Baldwin himself), which is read by an unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson. There are no talking heads present telling you about Baldwin or American history, only Baldwin’s text in combination with footage and pictures from various sources. Not only from Baldwin’s time, but also from now, the Black Lives Matter movement, pictures of victims of unnecessary violence. It makes painfully clear that we have moved on thirty years in time, but that the issues Baldwin wrote about are still relevant. His critical texts about society make you think. Still, there are parts of the film which are hard to follow when you don’t know the context from which he was writing. For example, not everyone will know who Medgar Evers was. Despite that though Peck succeeds to make the viewer think and paint a clear pictures about Baldwin, his ideas and struggles with racism in America.