"Home of the brave; land of the gang bang." Snoop Dogg (2017)
I wanted to let you know that your legend is secure and newly monumental. I thought you might like to know that, because you made your dreams clear in your high school yearbook with the caption, "Fame is the spur - and ouch!" Then there was your belief that the only worthwhile vengeance was the creation of something that could outlast kingdoms. Well, thankfully, concepts are liquid: "kingdoms" have come and gone since you crossed over, and your talent still towers.
I didn't know until recently, courtesy of your estate and Raoul's film, that you had begun Remember This House, a meditation on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King jnr. and Medgar Evers; all of whom you knew and loved. It's a shame that you were unable to complete your tripartite epitaph. I'm certain it would have proven incendiary as always. But, alas, before you could complete it, your folks had to ready yours.
Martin is still respectable in a mainstream sense: there is MLK weekend in January now - good old Stevie - but you were already gone before Martin became one of the Westminster Abbey portal martyrs. Malcolm is still a hot potato; it would be invaluable to have your input on the Muslim question right now. I imagine that you would be disappointed, but unsurprised by the vermin-isation of the words refugee, immigrant and Muslim, in recent years.
Medgar, I knew next to nothing about, until I found a speech that you made at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979, where you dismissed the term Civil Rights as "American phrase," and said instead that the assassinations of your brothers-in-unrest was evidence that the movement was a "Slave rebellion... brutally put down." I took a closer look at Medgar. What was were his crimes? Desegregation of higher education, desegregation of beaches, investigation of murder. Really? The things that can get an innocent black man killed in America.
Tonight I had a juddering collision with your words again; a brand new encounter with them; one I hoped for - with hindsight - but didn't expect. In fact, I reacted with protective distrust when I heard that somebody had the "Unction" (Remember that debate with William Buckley at Cambridge in '65?) to make another film about you. What could a new work possibly say that The Price of the Ticket (1987) hadn't already? Why not just restore and redistribute it? It's peerless. It can't be topped!
I can only tell you that I am old enough now to have come to terms with my natural arrogance and my infinite naivete; the same qualities that run through my belief that nobody loves you more than I. However, I think I will have to allow Raoul Peck to love you too - every bit as much as the viewers I shared his masterpiece with tonight. He has done your legacy proud. Tell you what, honey, your words haven't aged a day.
I haven't seen your letters elevated in such lofty escutcheons before; or keened this much to the incisiveness of your relentless dissections of your country's condition. You blew into America's living rooms like a brazen twister. You devoured the language and used it to pronounce the riot act. I don't wish that I had met you. I'm glad I didn't get the chance to gush fan nonsense at you and have you read me. The word Fierce gets over used these days. You were fierceness itself.
You would have loved this movie James. Your folks were involved, so it was handled with delicacy. It didn't presume to complete your intended Remember this House tragedy. It used your inspirational figures as a device, allowing the contemporary state of the nation you loved, pitied, and battled for, to affirm your ideas. And now, as I write you this letter, I realise why Raoul used stark black and white in his geometric titles. Colour is still a thing; a thing unresolved. Colour can still be a death warrant.
Raoul didn't pull your punches: he ensured them home. He didn't date your sixties and seventies epistles. Rather, he affirmed the accuracy of your aim. That "Fire next time," that the Old Testament promised Noah and his family, is still raging. 2016/2017 has been as worrying as 1924/1925: when the KKK marched 30,000 strong in Washington, a few weeks after your first birthday; the same year your mother and stepfather married. It must have been terrifying for them. The terror is back. I guess it never really went away.
Bobby Kennedy, it turns out, was right about the possibility of a black president, forty years from his 1961 statement, give or take a few years. You would have liked Barack Obama, but I doubt that the detail of his success would have dodged your penetrating eye: the fact that his blackness wasn't harrowed by the Louisiana cotton fields, that he wasn't, like you, a child of the Great African American Migrations; that he didn't have the same claims on the title that James W Ford, Shirley Chisolm or Jesse Jackson did. He did manage to accomplish what the racists couldn't obstruct, which unfortunately wasn't that much.
The new guy you wouldn't like at all. You would despise him more than you did J. Edgar Hoover. He's as deluded about what America means, but not nearly as clever. Like you once suggested, some supreme being's eye might well be on the sparrow, but we are still having to mind the hawk. This is why Raoul frames your words so powerfully. The new guy gasses ad infinitum about making America great again, but it is not possible to look at Raoul's film, and its precision placement of your ideas, to ascertain when that greatness once was.
It is possible to look at it and see the enduring constructions of consumerist illusions and economic lies. The movies you watched, the actors you critiqued could not exist in isolation from the Negro problem. Two Little Girls From Little Rock from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) preceded the Little Rock Nine by four years; girls and boys who really were from the wrong side of the tracks, spat on by little Loreleis and Dorothys; repulsed by the Arkansas National Guard one minute, and then escorted by them the next.
When Dance Fools Dance appeared in 1931, with a hoofing, sequinned Joan Crawford, Herbert Hoover was president. I guess he had the Great Depression to deal with, but he didn't exactly lose weight during the Depression, neither did he sanction anti-lynching laws. And then you rooted for John Ford's John Wayne Injun-killer, until the sad day you realised that the Injuns were in essence you, and that John Wayne was just another enemy of your people.
Raoul's movie was thick with sequences of footage, from Department of Commerce movies, Johnson Publications - Selling the Negro, The Gong Show, the Trisha, and The Jerry Springer Shows, to emphasise the investment in unreality that makes real need, and agitation for fairness, both twin inconveniences. Raoul showed us images of white "one -drop rule" slaves, white politicians apologising, racist police violence in the twentieth century, and slaughtered African-American boys from the twenty-first.
Samuel L Jackson found a voice that sounded like yours at the world-weary point of your departure, with which he delivered your written words. It contrasted sharply with the younger you ablaze in the American television studios, on the couches, cigarette in hand, tremoring like a grenade with a dodgy pin. Audiences, like the one in the cinema, laughed at your dry acerbity, and applauded your charged insights. I would have loved to have been in an African-American household when you were on the Dick Cavett show in 1968. It must have been electrifying to watch.
It matters to me that you were a great star; that your language couldn't be faulted; that presidents could snub, but not ignore you; that the FBI surveilled you; that you annoyed Bobby Kennedy to his face; that you somehow found compassion for your oppressors despite their perpetual murderous intent; that some thought they could easily rebut your Negro complaints, only to discover that they were arguing with one of America's finest ever minds. I admire how you left your country to protect its most lost citizens from yourself, and how you returned to do what you could to enlighten and help them.
And Raoul featured your friends too: Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier; all looking impossibly beautiful, and of course Malcolm, Medgar and Martin. With their presence, Raoul raised the question, "What is America's problem?" You knew what America's problem was, which is why you became a necessary fly in its illusionistic ointment.
Raoul's film was not concerned with your sexuality; it wasn't as intimate as The Price of the Ticket. it didn't have to be. Having said that, I left the cinema greedy for more works, realising that there are not enough filmmakers to flesh out your striking legend.
In the 1980s when I was at secondary school and your letters found me via Giovanni's Room and The Amen Corner, and my return to the UK was marked by the release of The Price of the Ticket, it was the beginning of a deep relationship; one that still means the Earth to me. I'm grateful that your star still burns so brilliantly, and that our collision was inevitable. You are still the only writer who has caused me to weep at the written word on a train -reading the penultimate chapter of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
You've long been my hero because your words found me and you seemed to know of me before I knew of myself. Your words still find me. I am ever open to them. I too, once upon a time, felt a cold, concrete church floor at my back, as I looked up at a congregation of tall saints. I too looked in a mirror and saw a face similar to one that others may have seen before; knowing it to be the face of ancestors that were exploited to conquer a continent, ancestors that looked beyond the same oceans as their captors into darker pasts.
I am always yours with the deepest fondness. David. X
Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is out now.Suggest a correction