James Baldwin documentary, ‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ a fine film at time of disillusionment
If you go see it, make sure you bring a white person with you
By the time I Am Not Your Negro comes to a close, you’ve been taken on a journey through black excellence, despondence and correspondence that as a history lesson is brilliant. Director Raoul Peck serves up a blend of archival footage, historical photos and the voice work of Samuel L. Jackson to finish the untold story of James Baldwin’s Remember This House that surely will make it a front-runner at the 2017 Academy Awards in the best documentary category.
So, what’s the catch? Timing. If this movie had been released five years ago, it might be the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Yet, in a post-Ferguson, Missouri, world, it feels like exactly what it is. A creative film made from a book that was not completed. While the allegories of Baldwin’s work are clearly applicable to today’s world in so many ways, that is ultimately the draw and drawback of this film.
As we’ve watched the United States of America stand up to the corruptive powers of institutional racism, battle against structural discrimination and mourn so many innocent lives with hashtags, we’ve been forced to learn. Many of us have been forced to take a look beyond the obvious injustices of unarmed people dying at the hands of police officers and delve into the psychology that comes with why white supremacy is more important than law and order in America. Election Day has taught us that as well.
If you don’t have at least a cursory understanding of those underpinnings of America’s fragile societal state, then you are avoiding it or you don’t want to know. Because even if you don’t care or aren’t paying attention, you still know. The fact that #BlackLivesMatter is a household term is proof enough of that, even if all of those goals have not been achieved.
Again, however, I Am Not Your Negro is a fine film. The intertwined stories of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, as told by Baldwin, are fantastic. The sheer amount of movie and television clips relevant to the discussion of how portrayal, power, privilege and poverty intersect are staggering and impressive. The analysis of said scenes through Baldwin’s words and Jackson’s lens with Peck’s touch is the most fulfilling part of this film, aside from the footage of the author himself breaking people off in real life.
“Most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered had a Negro friend or a Negro maid or somebody in high school,” Baldwin says at one point in the film, during a clip from the Florida Forum in 1963. “But they never or rarely, after school was over or whatever, came to my kitchen. We were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore he doesn’t know, he really does not know, what is was like for me to leave my house, you know, leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn’t know how Negroes live. And it comes as a surprise, to the Kennedy brothers and to everybody else in the country. I’m certain, again, like most white Americans I’ve encountered. They have no, I’m sure they have nothing against Negroes. That’s really not the question. The question is really a kind of apathy and ignorance. Which is a price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. That, you don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because you don’t want to know.”
It’s a theme that’s visited more than once in the film and, obviously, the book. This notion of racism and its effects are somehow not actually white peoples’ issue. Which in itself is a question that many will debate forever, but in this lifetime does not particularly matter to most people on the underserved end of the issue.
Peck made a movie that is best served for the ostensibly non-woke. Baldwin is a man whose story is somewhat obscured in literary history. But then again, if you’re walking into a theater to see a film named I Am Not Your Negro, your familiarity with the subject is likely a prerequisite.
Ultimately, when the images of black lives and their degradation are projected across every television, phone and tablet in America on constant loop, the artistic merit of altering those images comes into question. A stylized look at racist violence is something we’ve grown out of. We’re now far more straight-up about those visuals, even if less direct about its effects.
“Peck changed not only the framing of his images, but their traditional use and their ‘editing’ as well,” the film’s production notes read. “He changed the backgrounds, detached portions, enlarged a smile, scratched out a tear. The goal was to deconstruct original intentions and thus expose a new meaning to accepted iconography, unveil buried secrets or unknown truths of the time.”
In 2017, few of those truths are tucked away. I Am Not Your Negro is inspirational if you’ve been lucky enough to live in a world that has not already exposed you to such harsh realities. Baldwin was well ahead of his time to recognize that. But if you go see this movie, make sure you bring a white person with you. They need to know.