I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished manuscript by 20th century novelist and social critic James Baldwin. Baldwin only wrote about 30 pages the project titled “Remember this House”, in which he set out to write a portrait of American Identity thru the story of the three murdered leaders of the Civil Rights movement: Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Director Raoul Peck inter-cuts archival interview footage with the portrayal of Black life in popular media throughout the 20th century, with images of contemporary American life, shots of the Ferguson protests, and images of police brutality. But the best decision Peck makes here is to let Baldwin speak for himself, as read by Samuel L. Jackson. Baldwin’s was a towering intellect, and his keen observations about the cancer of White Supremacy in America ring as depressingly true today as they did 40 or 50 years ago. There is little doubt that that the America Baldwin is writing about is the same America we live in today.
One of the things I appreciate most about I Am Not Your Negro is how it refuses to not coddle its audience – particularly its white audience. White feelings have been coddled for far too long in American Media while addressing the issue of race. Instead, the film allows Baldwin to clearly and eloquently detail not only the physical effects of White Supremacy, but also the psychological and emotional scars of, discovering that “the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you”.
Salim Garami is back with us. He’s not a real “guest” anymore, he’s one of us… but since we haven’t been able to truly induct him into our secret society yet as of yet, he’ll be our guest this one last time. We appreciate his willingness to join us from time to time and think you’ll appreciate his thoughts a lot.
Salim’s work can be read at Movie Motorbreath.
I’m literally not saying anything that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll give it a shot.
There is no world in which I Am Not Your Negro is not an absolute good. In a time where we need more exposure to the history of race relations in the United States of America, an anchor by which to reckon with our own struggle to progress towards our fellow man, I Am Not Your Negro is an important film in no small way. It’s also going to be the first introduction and in some cases the only exposure a lot of people have to the urgent social observations of the articulate and brave James Baldwin, which once again reminds us that this is never not going to be a good thing.
But if I could implore someone to do one or the other, I would be nudging someone to read Baldwin’s works than I would be nudging them to see this film.
For one thing, Baldwin was a lot more free-wheeling a writer than I think many of us acknowledge without losing his persuasive tone, and that’s frankly such a powerfully fluid and all-encompassing way to craft an argument that director Raoul Peck would need to work to translate that into imagery that propels Baldwin’s words rather than just presents it in a literal way. There is literally a shot of Mars to respond to Baldwin suggesting white men wanting to think Birmingham is on Mars, that literal.
Peck, I would argue, doesn’t really have any thesis to make with the film and is just reliant on Baldwin’s own words to shape the film. And that’s kind of what gives it an aimless desperation for things to put around when it doesn’t interview footage of the extremely charismatic and articulate Baldwin on-screen to let himself take a break from labored editing.
This is going to be compounded by the fact that the work in question that Peck bases this film on, “Remember This House”, is essentially unfinished. And that it functions less as either persuasive essay or as autobiography than as observation in the middle of the thick of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is certainly something with restrained anger and prophecies on the future state of race relations (that were proven true) but it’s not a complete work and that means I Am Not Your Negro, with so little effort put in by Peck, is not a complete movie. He presents Baldwin’s words artlessly as feeling like a series of notes more or less and only the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in the job he was born to do reciting Baldwin is giving the film any real form of character.
I know “it doesn’t do enough with the medium to justify being a movie” is an exhaustive familiar argument sometimes, especially since I think I Am Not Your Negro justifies itself as a movie enough because some people just wouldn’t read Baldwin without this pushing them. But like I said, I’d much rather somebody actually read Baldwin than watch this. Regardless, Peck holds the film back, but he hardly sabotages it. Baldwin is enough to make this powerful watching/listening and the film works on his shoulders as he incisively critiques white guilt, a lack of reflexivity in white America from the satisfaction of that guilt, and how it prevents a brighter future for race relations as he witnesses his peers disappearing. And the power in I Am Not Your Negro is how urgently it makes us face the relevance and universality of Baldwin’s words in this shitshow of American race relations today.
The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.
It is not a pretty story.
P.S. I’m also kind of put off by how it practically elides over Baldwin’s open homosexuality. It was certainly another element of Baldwin’s marginalized status that he fought all through his life for and practically intertwined with his observations on civil rights.
JUSTIN HARLAN: This film is powerful and a must watch… but it’s because of Baldwin and his words much more than because of the film itself. Salim does a much better job articulating that point than I could. I may, perhaps, appreciate the filmmaking a bit more than he, but its undeniable that the film’s power is in Baldwin rather than the directorial decisions.
Since Luke and Salim covered the film and its power well, I’d like to spend my few words on its music. I really love the musical selections in the film. Ranging from Nat King Cole to Kendrick Lamar, the music highlights some great African American artists and fits into the film’s framework perfectly. To close this out, here are a few of my favorite tracks from the film:
I Am Not Negro is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.