DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: I Am Not Your Negro
52nd Chicago International Film Festival Black Perspectives and Documentary program presentation
“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”-- 5 STARS
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, renowned African-American writer James Baldwin stood as a non-religious middle ground between the political activism of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X’s rhetoric of might, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s preachings of pacifism. Born of the Harlem Renaissance, cultured as an expatriate, and a defender of homosexuality, Baldwin was a friend to all three, outliving them every one of them. In doing so, Baldwin bore witness to all of their methods, dreams, successes, and failures.
The documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” from director Raoul Peck unearths “Remember This House,” an unfinished 1979 manuscript of James Baldwin’s recollections of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin. This outstanding and informative film presents Baldwin’s musings alongside sobering imagery of both the turbulent history of the era and parallel occurrences of modern racial unrest that echo the same violence, inequality, anger, and sorrow. As an Oscar nominee in a banner year for feature documentaries, “I Am Your Negro” is essential viewing.
Narrated by an unrecognizably serious Samuel L. Jackson, “I Am Not Your Negro” initially weaves the pop culture observations of Baldwin’s influences and heroes. He was a cultured Harlem youth absorbing the mainstream film and music of the time that too often lampooned inaccurate depictions of black culture and stereotypes. Baldwin posed firsthand inquiries towards the weighty social and mental pressures he felt prevented any unprejudiced integration of races in America.
As an essayist, playwright, and public debater, Baldwin never identified with a church and never considered the NAACP or Black Panthers as viable places for his beliefs. He offered his defenses and dissenting views, even alongside the peers and friends he admired in the form of MLK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. The film examines Baldwin’s intersections with each of the three and how their eventual deaths affected his written works, public stances, and private life on conduct and race relations.
Baldwin’s words then project like foreshadowing and prophecy to the state of things now. Samuel L. Jackson speaks the author’s own words with grave focus and stoic fortitude. The lack of his usual exasperation sets a deep tone of voice for the whole film. Culling together a wealth of archival footage of interviews, reference points, and shared speeches, “I Am Not Your Negro” delivers a wallop of history and creativity. Peck’s film is nimbly and masterfully edited by Alexandra Strauss with layers of deep connectivity to merge the past with the present. Brilliant intelligence merges with maddening truths in a truly compelling exhibition.
LESSON #1: THE RESPONSIBILITY OF A WITNESS TO HISTORY-- James Baldwin always channeled his life experiences and observations in his writings. He recognized the ramifications of the history unfolding in front of him and pushed for reflection and advocacy. What began as oral history evolved into the written word and now audio and video. Baldwin’s words, in their many forms, are now a part of that history.
LESSON #2: HOW SOCIETY PORTRAYS A SOCIAL ISSUE IS TELLING-- Behind the perceived prosperity of the affluent members of society that make the art and write the history, lies the real-world problems that few get to talk about. 90% of the historical textbooks and readings you fill find in educational institutions are sugarcoated with bias and revision to soften the ugly realities underneath.
LESSON #3: A COUNTRY’S STORY CAN BE WRITTEN BY ITS OPPRESSED-- Too often, people look at the successes to gauge a culture or nation. What they should look at is how the persecuted are treated. The sky’s the limit for any society’s ceiling, but how dirty is the floor? The history and fate of our nation is linked to every citizen, weak or strong, rich or poor, and respected or disrespected. “I Am Your Negro” commonly shows just how little we’ve improved in 50 years of race relations.