The Academy Award-nomiated documentary points to a deteriorating and tragic racial climate more than 50 years after Baldwin emerged as a leading prophet of the civil rights movement.
While giving powerful glimpses of Baldwin in TV appearances, speeches and a debate at Britain's Cambridge University, the film misfires in its use of Baldwin's writings, read by Samuel L. Jackson.
According to Baldwin biographer James Campbell in a recent Times Literary Supplement review, Peck severely shortened and rearranged Baldwin's work.
The film credits say Peck edited Baldwin's writings, but Campbell claims that's misleading and that the credits should have said something like "based on an interpretation of Baldwin's work." While some of the passages attributed to Baldwin are powerful, many lose their force and coherence.
The work's narrative structure is also undermined by the overuse of movie clips to illustrate the dominance of white heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper in American movies and the stereotyped images of black characters. Black star Sidney Poitier and singer Harry Belafonte also appear along with Baldwin's commentary that Hollywood sought to undermine their sexuality.
The film claims to be based on Baldwin's "Remember This House," a book he never completed about slain black leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The film falters in giving little or no background about the three. Although the careers of Malcolm and King are well-known, the film needed more information for younger audiences.
While Evers was nationally known when he was killed in his carport in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, he's likely little remembered today. Nor are details given about each man's death, not making the distinction that King and Evers were killed by white racists, while Malcom was assassinated by the Black Muslims.
Not does the film give sufficient context or background about Baldwin's career. With essays like "The Fire Next Time," originally published in the New Yorker, Baldwin was accused by more radical black writers of being an "Uncle Tom" seeking to ease white fears about black rage. White readers were frightened by what they considered his extreme views. The film falls short in not illustrating Baldwin's early brilliant essays, novels and plays, and the severe criticism his work received late in his career.
The most striking part of the film shows Baldwin's appearance at the Cambridge debate, with scenes interspersed throughout the film. The images end with Baldwin receiving a standing ovation from the Cambridge students. The film doesn't mention Baldwin's opponent, but Campbell in the TLS identified him as William F. Buckley.
The film effectively details America's continuing struggle with racism, displaying heart-breaking photos of young black men slain by police in recent years and images of protests in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
While Peck loses control of the narrative with his ineffective use of Baldwin's work and his over-reliance on movie images, the film demonstrates the importance of Baldwin as a writer and social and cultural critic. Readers who honor Baldwin's work will hope the documentary inspires today's generation to turn to Baldwin's original words.