Movie Review: ‘I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO’ – history is present
Preston Barta // Editor
Though the silver screen often explores racism and the fight for equality, few have exposed the subject in as sensitive and personal a manner as Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.
Based on a treatment that Harlem-born essayist and social critic James Baldwin wrote for a book he never completed before his 1987 death from cancer, Peck’s transformative film dives into the nuances of race and class in America through the prism of Baldwin’s life, as well as the lives of three assassinated civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
At first glance, we are led to believe we’re going to watch a documentary that pays tribute to a man who gave a voice to many and informed the uninitiated about the civil rights struggle. Even its opening sequence credits Baldwin for writing the film. However, as the film sets up Baldwin’s character, his philosophy and desire to bring about change — by way of archival footage from a 1968 episode of THE DICK CAVETT SHOW — we soon realize Baldwin’s writing credit couldn’t ring more true: Every line of narration that permeates the film is taken directly from Baldwin’s unfinished book, essays or letters to literary agencies.
This credit does not suggest Baldwin was the brain behind this film’s structure and technical ideas. All that should be paid to Peck (SOMETIMES IN APRIL), who used Baldwin’s words as the framework to piece together this remarkable video essay. Through the film’s unique assembly of historical footage and strewn images from the past, Peck invites viewers to listen and understand the world from a new perspective.
One of the film’s most affecting sequences happens within the first 10 minutes, showing the picturesque nightlife of New York’s Times Square. As the camera slowly creeps through the streets, highlighting the world’s material goods, Baldwin admits how he had never been “homesick for anything American” during his years of living out of the country.
“Neither waffles, ice cream, hot dogs, baseball, majorettes, movies, nor the Empire State Building, nor Coney Island, nor the Statue of Liberty, nor the Daily News, nor Times Square. All of these things had passed out of me. … They might never have existed for me, and it made absolutely no difference to me if I never saw them again.”
These heartbreaking words instill viewers with a sense of guilt for loving what the world offers. Activists such as Baldwin, King and others fought until their deaths to wake up their community. But if history had panned out in their favor, would you miss the things you value now? If the history books read differently, if classic literature such as TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD and the infrastructure you admire as you drive to work did not exist in this alternate reality, could you leave it behind like Baldwin would?
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO poses many difficult questions for audiences to ponder. But Baldwin also provides the sort of answers that fall into place and give us even more to think about. Whether it’s how he would give up everything he listed above for more time with family and friends, or how the black experience remains hopeless as long as we embrace the sort of language we have, Baldwin’s own language informs and reaches us on a level that cannot be compared to anything that has come before.
It’s astonishing how much meaning Baldwin’s words still have today. Even comedian Aziz Ansari was shocked with how he was turning to voices from our past to make sense of today during his opening monologue on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE this past weekend. It goes to show you how important some voices are for everyone to hear, and how timeless some of these greater arguments are.
Some of Baldwin’s most poignant passages come from him living as an expatriate. Much like we all learn to appreciate and understand what we have when we step away, Baldwin’s outside perspective — along with that of Peck, who is from Haiti — is enlightening and comes with a great deal of honesty that’s easy to connect with.
By and large, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO may, at first, be difficult to tune into due to its unconventional filmmaking method. However, Baldwin’s breakdown of why groups in power behave the way they do, Peck’s stunning imagery and Samuel L. Jackson’s reserved narration open the door to a more hopeful future of equality.
Screening at 7 p.m. tonight (Jan. 26) as part of the Denton Black Film Festival at Silver Cinemas in the Golden Triangle Mall, and opening Feb. 3 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.