I got the call just as I was getting ready for work. “Don’t bother coming in this morning,” my boss said. “Go to this address. You’re interviewing James Baldwin.” I took a deep breath, grabbed Notes of a Native Son off the shelf and hurried off to a council flat in Harlesden, where the great man was staying, jotting down some possible questions on the way.
It was 1985, two years before the writer’s death aged 62 and Baldwin was in London to open an exhibition of photographs by the Trinidadian film maker, Horace Ove. But in the casual way things were often done in those days, he had expressed a last minute interest in meeting members of the black press and somehow the London bureau of Nigerian news magazine Concord Weekly where I worked as a reporter was in on the invite.
Despite my nerves, Baldwin could not have been more a more gracious interviewee – one only had to drop a few words and he would run with them far and wide, and was delighted when I asked him about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a book he said he could identify with because, although set in Nigeria at the turn of the century, it spoke of the universality of the black experience.
Our session was soon over as the next in turn was waiting in the kitchen. As I took my leave following a warm handshake from a sparkly-eyed Baldwin, I was struck as much by what he said as the eloquence with which he said it, the resonant timbre of his voice and the way his expression would shift in a heartbeat from a profound world weariness to a dazzling smile. “His is a luminous presence,” I wrote later, “and even when he is not putting pen to paper, he is powerful figure.”
I was reminded of this many times over as I watched I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary inspired by Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript in remembrance of his friends, the assassinated civil-rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr.
Directed by Raoul Peck, who won critical acclaim with his 2000 film feature Lumumba, it manages to powerfully illuminate the life of a great public intellectual while exploring the enduring legacy of slavery in the US.
The film opens in 1957 when Baldwin was already well down the road of literary fame with his novel Go Tell it on the Mountain and book-length essay Notes of a Native Son but had decided to return to the US from self-imposed exile in France, saying, “Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”
Based almost entirely on Baldwin’s writings and narrated by Samuel L Jackson, Peck juxtaposes archive footage of Baldwin on the podium and in television interviews with seminal events in the civil rights struggle and the murderous response to them with the present-day deaths of young men and women at the hands of the police. It is a connecting thread revealing the uncomfortable truth about America as “the sickest and most dangerous country in the world”.
For Baldwin, the moral apathy that made this possible – what he describes as the “death of the heart” – is reflected in the seductive but distorted power of popular entertainment in general and Hollywood in particular, and clips from films like the 1939 Stage Coach showing John Wayne picking off Indians with his gun – “genocide as entertainment” – are frequently interspersed to illustrate the point.
As a former child preacher from Harlem, Baldwin was a mesmerising speaker, who could deconstruct the complexities of racial oppression in simple ways. “It was not I or any other black man who invented the world negro,” we see him telling a a rapt audience in London in 1969 in a clip from a documentary directed by the aforementioned Ove. “It was not I who wrote that on my birth certificate. There is no country called negro.”
In this age of anti-intellectualism it has taken a long time for Baldwin to finally resurface and Peck has given due honour to the man I was privileged to meet more than 30 years ago.
This article first appeared in West End Extra on April 13 2017