I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO forces viewers to connect past and present
In 1987, acclaimed poet, novelist, activist, and wordsmith, James Baldwin was about 30 pages in to his newest novel, Remember This House. A book in which he planned to share his very unique perspective of The United States of America, through the deaths of his three friends Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Most thought the story was to be left unfinished when Baldwin died in December of 1987. Luckily (or perhaps through determination and shear will) director Academy Award nominated Raoul Peck obtained the manuscript and from there, created I Am Not Your Negro.
In between profound interview clips from Baldwin himself and voice overs reading his written words by Samuel L. Jackson, there is an obvious connection between the observations made during his years (1924-1987) and today in 2017. Baldwin famously said on television while being interviewed-
“If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” Baldwin told interviewer Dick Cavett. “When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
In my opinion, human beings (particularly Americans) struggle with apathy. Not so much that they are cold and lack emotion, but rather they forcibly look away from things that make them confront their shortcomings and privilege. I Am Not Your Negro leaves no wiggle room to look away, you will be uncomfortable and will be forced to sit and watch these atrocities that have happened in the last 70+ years. What differs from other civil rights documentaries surrounding black America you watched in history class, is the obvious correlation the film makes between those assaults on African Americans “back then” and the ones that are happening now.
This is one of the most important documentaries I have seen in a while because while it did not present much information I did not already know, it was framed in such a way that did not diminish the struggles that black America currently experience. Too often people think we live in a post racial society but with Baldwin’s words echoing behind the images filmed just last year, even the biggest doubter will be forced to acknowledge that as much things change is as much they stay the same.
While they honored the original manuscript framed around the life and deaths of Baldwin’s three infamous friends, the film also managed to humanize them in such a way that they became smaller than untouchable martyrs, they became human beings. As someone who watches documentaries regularly, and appreciates the “experts” interviews that weave throughout the movies, I appreciated that absence in this documentary. I found the understated way in which Baldwin’s point of view led the film entirely, to be efficient in getting the words to resonate. Letting the images and video clips speak for themselves as a separate component only added to the overall affect.
James Arthur Baldwin once said,
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
And sadly, I could not agree more.