Editor’s Note: I Am Not Your Negro opens in limited theatrical release today, February 3, 2017.
“You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate,” said author James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, describing the desperation of living in America. “The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”
Five years earlier in 1979, Baldwin, active during the American Civil Rights movement, had embarked on a new project, a novel that would tell the story of the United States through the lives of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The project would never be finished, but director Raoul Peck has created in his newest film, I Am Not Your Negro, the cinematic version of the book that was never written. Using 30 pages of Baldwin’s notes, his writings and many appearances on televised talk shows, Peck reconstructs Baldwin’s razor-sharp insights into race relations in America, as seen through the eyes of a man on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement.
I Am Not Your Negro is a difficult watch but an important one, as so much of what Baldwin said decades ago still applies today, not just tangentially or metaphorically but directly.
Baldwin’s own words are heard in both narration (supplied by Samuel L. Jackson) and in archival footage, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, much of which has been colorized, while modern footage is occasionally rendered in black and white. It’s an effective means of highlighting the fact that the world today hasn’t changed as much from the Civil Rights era, but in some cases, these visual parallels are hardly necessary. Take for example the shots of a drunken white twenty-something man in a sleeveless undershirt, wearing a Confederate flag for a cape, screaming hate at people daring to want to desegregate schools. He’s a relic of the late 1950s, but you could plunk him down into the middle of a kegger at dozens of state colleges across the country today and no one would look twice; the only difference between him and his modern counterparts are the brands of pomade they use.
I Am Not Your Negro is a difficult watch but an important one, as so much of what Baldwin said decades ago still applies today, not just tangentially or metaphorically but directly. Baldwin was in a unique position during the Civil Rights era, having worked with and known Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, among others. He was also inarguably a genius when it came to dissecting and getting to the real heart of sociocultural issues. Baldwin had the rare gifts of being able to see and understand multiple sides at once, to be critical of the issues at hand without necessarily being critical of the human beings involved — unless called for, of course — and being able to present these ideas in an accessible way.
Director Raoul Peck reconstructs Baldwin’s razor-sharp insights into race relations in America, as seen through the eyes of a man on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement.
Through archival footage, I Am Not Your Negro shows unequivocally that Baldwin was a magnetic speaker with intelligence and passion, but he was no-nonsense, too; the look on his face when a room full of liberal whites give him a standing ovation says all to clearly that the applause is nice and all, but not even close to what he as a black man in America wants or needs.
There was a huge FBI file on Baldwin, of course, quoted here in snippets, proving that his early revelation that his countrymen were his enemies was sadly true. At a young age, Baldwin learned about life from movies; as an adult, he wrote about them, analyzed them, tore them apart and put them back together again, recognizing that even the lightest, fluffiest entertainment product was always a direct reflection of American society, both as it existed and as the white people in power wished it existed. His words, coupled with scenes of several Golden Age films, are a harsh indictment of Hollywood, hard stuff to stomach for cinephiliacs, probably more so for those of us who know Baldwin was telling the pure, unadorned truth.
Through author, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin's own words, as well as archival footage and clips of many films from Hollywood's Golden Age, director Raoul Peck has deftly recreated one of Baldwin's unfinished works, a harsh and justified look at race relations in America.