After much anticipation we finally got a chance to view the critically acclaimed, Academy Award nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro; the 2016 documentary film directed by Haitian filmmaker and political activist Raoul Peck and distributed through Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios. The film is based on the writings of Baldwin’s uncompleted manuscript for Remember This House, an unfinished book which Baldwin was working on up until his death in 1987. The unfinished 30 page manuscript which was to serve as Baldwin’s personal memoir explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s perspective as he reminiscences over his recollections of slain Civil-Rights leaders and colleagues. Baldwin, who knew all three while they were still alive recalls his memories and experiences with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr and how his experiences with all three men and their deaths affected him and the movements they led. These accounts and profiles all written by Baldwin are the skeleton which serves as the framework that comprises the majority of the film’s body. Peck, who obtained the notes for the manuscript from Baldwin’s estate makes ample use of other media; utilizing a mix of old archival interview footage, audio recordings, excerpts from correspondences, letters, passages from Baldwin’s other published works and narration from Samuel L. Jackson who lends his voice throughout the film, narrating Baldwin’s unpublished text to craft and paint a portrait which serves as an abridged history of African-American racial identity in the U.S. from the mid to latter-20th century. The film waste no time, detailing Baldwin’s personal experiences and recollections as he laments the condition of African-Americans in a segregated and systemically racist society that has yet to reconcile with its past sins and injustices as well as address current demons which have been allowed free reign to wreak havoc throughout the nation’s long ugly history.
It is important to note that I Am Not Your Negro is not a biographical exploration of Baldwin. You will not learn that he was born in 1924 and grew up in Harlem New York, you will not learn of his experiences growing up in a poor family raised by an abusive preacher step father, you will learn little of his self-imposed exile in Europe with the exception of scant details narrated in writings, nor will you will your learn the depths of his literary legacy save for a few excerpts here and there peppered throughout the film. Even references to Baldwin’s sexuality, which he dedicated a significant portion of his writings to is only briefly discussed in an FBI file which the Bureau maintained on Baldwin from 1963 to 1971. Rather, I Am Not Your Negro serves as candid memoir. Stuck, frozen in place in a cross-section of time between 1963 and 1968 the time span of which both Evers, King and Malcolm were one after another so cruelly snatched away far before their time. Focusing mostly on these events, perhaps this would have served as spring-board for deeper introspection and retrospective self-analysis had Baldwin lived long enough to complete his vision.
The film is made all the much more timely and relevant while juxtaposing footage and scenes of police violence inflicted upon African-Americans from the 1960’s to those of modern day incidents see across our televisions, computer screens and mobile devices today. Black and white Civil-Rights era news clip footage juxtaposed to modern-day grainy digitized civilian cellphone videos capturing instances of police brutality shows truly just how little we as a nation have come in 50 years and how so much farther we have to still progress. This comparison serves as a disturbing and uncanny similarity, which brings the audience who still might be unaware to the stark reality that black death and racial state sanctioned violence witnessed today has not changed much since the days of the 60’s when Baldwin and many of his contemporaries chronicled throughout the film were fighting for racial equality and rallied against the same injustices nearly 50 years ago. Even though Baldwin has been deceased for close to three decades, his words and writings especially here seemingly echo through time as if perpetually encased in amber, forever preserving their biting potency and sustaining their lasting relevance. Their eternal resonance makes I Am Not Your Negro that much more relevant to today’s modern struggles as Baldwin’s commentary on 1950’s and 60’s Jim Crow U.S. society and the fight for Black liberation in the 60’s and 70’s serves a near mirror image reflection and premonition standing opposite of the Ferguson uprisings, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the presidency of Barack Obama and the disturbing resurgence of white nationalism which has followed as a vile response these transgressions in recent times. Images of victims of state sanctioned and vigilante racial violence from Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and far too many others all list here, uncomfortably and all too closely mirror those which took place when Baldwin and others demanded justice during the Civil-Rights era.
In short, Raoul Peck’s documentary takes stark look into the past, present and future of the fight for racial justice and Black liberation through the words and perspective of James Baldwin, whose writings and philosophies words still resonate some 50 years later in I Am Not Your Negro. I Am Not Your Negro in many ways serves as bridge between the past and present of where we are as a nation currently today. A gap which perhaps only existed in the minds and imaginations of those that wanted to believe that we as a society had actually made more progress than we truly really have. It is times like now where a film like such has greater relevance today than perhaps any other time ever before. Existing in a time when so many basic human and legal rights have been won on paper, yet in practice and reality hatred and systematic injustice still threatens to tear the U.S. apart. Revealing the country to be the same ugly, hypocrisy it is and has always been. I Am Not Your Negro’s power lays in the fact that it not only reveals how little we’ve actually progressed as a nation but also far we ourselves have been fooled into thinking we have come. Baldwin even takes aim at then contemporary Hollywood movies which Baldwin himself recoiled from after witnessing indignities suffered on film whether shallow one dimensional portrayals of African-Americans or those which portray Native Americans as vicious savages who need to by wiped out like an infestation all in the name to protect and uphold white anglo society. Baldwin counters these false narratives pushed by Hollywood which historically have been bent on reifying and codifying racial stereotypes while perpetuating a grossly inaccurate and fictitious narrative of the U.S. as the greatest merchant of freedom, democracy and justice. A lie that all POC in this nation from African-Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos, Asians etc. have known never to be be true in this country.
With I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck has undoubtedly delivered one of the best films of the year and arguably one of the most insightful and compelling documentaries of the decade. It’s prevailing relevance is not only a testament to Baldwin’s own words and foresight but an indictment of our own society which perpetually continues to uphold and perpetuate the same conditions and societal ailments which keep his words and writings ever so relevant. Much like Baldwin’s other works, I Am Not Your Negro will likely continue to remain relevant for years to come. Nearly every word Baldwin ever wrote and spoke about in regards to race in mid-20th century U.S. society still holds up today more than 50 years later, a haunting and disappointing observation but an accurate one nonetheless. Needless to say, Baldwin’s provocative analysis still remain explosively potent into today, and I Am Not Your Negro is testament to this. A stark reminder of just far we still have yet to progress in regards to race relations and racial justice in the U.S. but also that the same spirit and drive for racial justice in the modern Civil-Rights movements still burns and that although much work is yet to be done Baldwin’s words have not fallen upon deaf contemporary ears.
I Am Not Your Negro is now playing in select theaters nationwide. Check your local theater listings for screenings and availability.
Photo Courtesy: Salt Lake Film Society