In a scene from John M. Stahl’s 1934 film Imitation of Life, a fair-skinned girl named Peola sits in a classroom, listening to her teacher read Little Women. Upon seeing her mother Delilah—a black housekeeper played by actress Louise Beavers—enter the room in search of her, Peola conceals her face with a book. “I’m afraid you’ve made some mistake... I have no little colored children in my class,” the teacher tells Delilah, who then points out Peola. “I didn’t know she was colored,” one boy whispers. Peola flees, embarrassed by the revelation of her identity and yells, “I hate you!” to her mother’s face.
The 1959 remake of the film is different. There, the daughter’s name is Sarah Jane. And whereas, in the original, Peola is played by a young Fredi Washington, a biracial actress who could pass for white, the remake stars a white actress named Susan Kohner. Both movies were based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. But in a matter of 25 years, Hollywood had regressed and opted for even more whiteness.
Director Raoul Peck first intended to use the 1959 remake as archival footage for his James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. As Peck discovered through research, the original held deeper meaning for his project. “It’s like doing archaeology somehow,” he told The Huffington Post of his documentary. “There are many layers in the film. The audience might not see it, but it adds to the richness.”
Through the force of Baldwin, Peck performs an impressive educational feat: a documentary (in theaters today) that presents the monstrous scope of race in America and contextualizes cinema’s ability to create and enforce a whitewashed world, both real and imagined. Making up the documentary’s framework is Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, the proposal for which he wrote in 1979 before his death, planned as a project focused around the work of civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.
Scenes like the one taken from Imitation of Life allow Peck to explore Hollywood’s racist mechanisms, as proof that black characters and people were never meant to be seen. In fact, armed with the power to lie through moving images, Hollywood wreaked havoc on the black spirit. Just as the construct of race and the invention of the American negro was a mess of a creation, so was film. It’s through this retelling of a gross past that the significance of our current discussions of race in Hollywood are given sterling clarity and context.
The crimes of white America, the terror of racism, has played out through a predominantly white version of history in movies, a fact Baldwin thoroughly highlighted in his collection of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work. There, he describes the original The Birth of a Nation as “an elaborate justification of mass murder.” He also writes, in a passage not featured in I Am Not Your Negro, about the transcendence of the black performer:
It is scarcely possible to think of a black American actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been seriously challenged to deliver the best that is in him...What the black actor has managed to give are moments—indelible moments, created, miraculously, beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale to fragments.
This emphasizes the black actor’s historical status as pure prop, given little depth or direction. Peck enhances many of Baldwin’s thoughts by visually placing us, uncomfortably, at these coarse intersections of race and film in America. Footage is incorporated from a range of movies, familiar and obscure, and produced over generations: Dance Fools Dance (1931), The Monster Walks (1932), King Kong (1933), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1937), They Won’t Forget (1937), The Stagecoach (1939), The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and Little Big Man (1970), to name a few.
What’s eerie is how Peck connects Baldwin’s staggering observations then with the white supremacy on display today, and with Baldwin’s searing perspective of the world Hollywood chose to project—depictions of black people as mammies, rapists, and violent or subservient animals; and white people as joyous, innocent saviors and heroes. Such was Baldwin’s view of the threat of the “white imagination.” Samuel L. Jackson narrates in the doc, reading Baldwin’s words: “Heroes, as far as I could see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived of which movies were simply a reflection.”
Watching these performances in succession, the bombardment is startling; it forces you to consider how this hypnosis through film happened in real time. Snapshots of these movies appear even more grotesque next to images of lynchings, marches and protests from the Civil Rights Movement up to present-day Black Lives Matter. In one intense series of shots, we see Dorothy Counts integrating Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Baldwin notes the sadness in her eyes. It was this vision of her that compelled him to move from France back to America to plant the seeds for Remember This House. Similar types of images—and gruesome videos—compel people to move now, too.
Peck illustrates the false magic of movies tactfully; for example, using a scene from The Defiant Ones in which Sidney Poitier’s convict character jumps off a train to help the white racist to which he’s handcuffed. “When Sidney jumps off the train, the white liberal people downtown were much relieved and joyful,” Jackson says, reciting Baldwin. “But when black people saw him jump off the train, they yelled ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’ The black man jumps off the train to reassure white people, to make them know they are not hated.”
It’s impossible to view early black-and-white film propaganda—under the backdrop of Baldwin’s encapsulations of white power, guilt and forgiveness of their sins—and not consider its relevance to the ongoing diversity debate in Hollywood. In dwelling on history, Peck and Baldwin outline the reasons the push for inclusion in movies is still so strong and why it requires such frequent audits. As Peck lets Baldwin explain, white filmmakers not only controlled but fabricated a world as they saw it, in disgustingly warped fashion. And even now, in stories centered around black people, white creators largely steer the narrative.
In a piece for Vice about a whitewashed storyline in Hidden Figures, a movie about brilliant black NASA women, writer Dexter Thomas recalls asking the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, “why he had chosen to include a scene that never happened, and whether he thought portraying [Katherine] Johnson as being saved by a benevolent white character diminished what she did in real life.” Thomas writes:
He said he didn’t see a problem with adding a white hero into the story.
“There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing,” Melfi said. “And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”
This plot detail, the sort threaded throughout history, remains an aggravating thorn in an otherwise uplifting film with a shining cast. It’s the overwhelming totality of those decisions that makes moviegoers who aren’t white instinctually question what’s before our eyes. As Peck told Gothamist.“I don’t think I ever watched a movie without being totally immersed in the story. But at the same time, I had to keep some distance from it. I had to question what the narrative was trying to tell me or was injecting in my brain...This is a sort of healthy relationship with narrative, with stories, that I think most minorities, most people who don’t see their own image on the screen, have developed.”
By nominating La La Land for a record 14 awards, the Academy has deemed the most significant film of 2016 to be one that fits their narrative. La La Land is a fine story, sure, a celebration of dreams. But its starry eyed vision of classic Hollywood serves as a reminder of all the lies it sells, too. What Peck does so powerfully, besides showing the poisonous seeds of the film world—with a documentary that in many ways feels like being inside Baldwin’s brain—is prove the importance of rewriting narratives and critiquing the ones we’re fed. Rather than dismiss this criticism as trivial derailments, they should be entry points for progress away from the degrading images and stories in I Am Not Your Negro, which is nominated for an Oscar, alongside Ava DuVernay’s 13th, in a year filled with black nominations, after a year filled with none.