The end of the Obama presidency loomed large over the premiere of the new documentary I Am Not Your Negro at the LACMA museum in Los Angeles Thursday night.
When Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck first set out to make a movie based on an unfinished memoir by the African-American writer James Baldwin more than a decade ago, there was no way he could have known that the film would be premiering just as America’s first black president was getting ready to leave the White House after two terms.
If there is one central message of the film, it’s that “nothing has fundamentally changed,” something Peck says he felt when he began the film and still feels today. By juxtaposing footage from Birmingham in the 1960s and Ferguson today, the film brings that message to life in unsettling and disturbing ways.
Samuel L. Jackson serves as the narrator of the film, reciting the eloquent and electrifying words of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, about the lives and deaths of three Civil Rights icons—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—each of whom, he reminds us, were shot down before they reached the age of 40. At 68 years old, Jackson lived through each of those assassinations and remembers them well.
“Everyone thinks the world changes or the world evolves, but there is a certain evolution on this planet that has not changed, especially in this culture,” Jackson told The Daily Beast before the film screened to a packed house at LACMA’s Bing Theater.
“And James Baldwin spoke to that very truthfully. He talks about the personality of a country that doesn’t allow itself to change. And he makes that very clear and it is very clear now when we look around and see that he was right.”
Looking back at eight years of Obama, Jackson says carefully, “The president’s always been a very gracious man.” He pauses before his next statement, as if trying to decide how gracious he should be. “And he has an interesting way of making us understand how he feels in a very honest and real way. And he also has an interesting way of concealing specific feelings. And that’s a very political way to be.
“I’m sure there are other feelings flowing through him that we will never know, just because he has to pass the torch in a specific way,” Jackson adds. Yet he admits that the country, and the world, has “become a better place” because Obama was in it. As his former golf buddy Donald Trump prepares to take office, he adds, “We could revert to being a place that’s not so nice to be in.”
Peck, who lives in Paris, is less generous when it comes to Obama’s legacy, pointing to a line from Baldwin that actually got cut out of the film. Speaking to a journalist who asked what the first black president would mean to him, Baldwin said, “The question is not when we will have the first negro president, the real question is what country he will be the president of.”
“It’s not about one man,” Peck explains. “And that’s exactly happened. Obama had eight years and yes, there has been change, but he didn’t change the country. It even became worse. The right question is not who you put on top, it’s what is the country?”
There is, however, a moment about the first black president that remained in the film. It comes about halfway through when we see Robert F. Kennedy deliver his hopeful message for the future in 1961.
“There’s many areas of the United States where there’s no prejudice whatsoever,” the attorney general says, naively. “Negroes are continuously making progress in this country. The progress in many areas is not as fast as it should be, but they are making progress and we will continue to make progress.” He predicts that in the “foreseeable future” a “negro” could even be president of the United States.
That line got a smattering of applause from the audience at the premiere, but it was quickly shut down by Baldwin’s pointed response years later, which immediately follows Kennedy’s remarks.
“I remember when the ex-attorney general, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a negro president,” Baldwin says. “That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become president.”
That clip is followed by the sunny imagery of President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, smiling and waving on Inauguration Day 2009.
“Forty years ago, I pretty much felt the same way,” Jackson said at the Q&A session that followed the screening. “People telling you, you can grow up to be president and I was like, bullshit. I could grow up to be a lot of shit, but not president.”
Now, by the time Peck’s film will be released in theaters on Feb. 3, the Obama years will be over. In his farewell address this past week, the president struck a more positive tone about progress for African Americans, while admitting that the existence of his presidency in itself was never going to solve the problem.
“After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” Obama said. “Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.”
Those words rang far more true that Donald Trump’s message to African Americans during his campaign: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
As much as Jackson may be disappointed that Obama did not always express himself as freely as he would have liked, he recognizes that the outgoing president “gives us hope in an interesting way, and young people need to take that message and pick up the torch and understand that they can’t sit quietly by and let things happen.”
“They can’t sit quietly by and let the world revert to what it was before they had an opportunity to have a man like him be their voice,” he continues. “There are kids, eight years old, that don’t know another president, that will be the kind of people that can look at the world and find another person that doesn’t necessarily look like the dominant race and say that person speaks for me also.”
“Hopefully because of what’s happened in this country,” Jackson says, unable to bring himself to speak the name of the man who will succeed Obama, “there will be a greater awareness and urgency to take up the torch and get out and vote.”