‘I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO’ – Eternal voice speaks volumes on race in America

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Preston Barta // Editor

This past week Denton saw the regional premiere of the Oscar-nominated documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, which opens theatrically in Dallas on Friday. It served as the perfect opening night film for the Denton Black Film Festival this past weekend, diving into topical material in a way that has never yet been explored.

Raoul Peck, director of I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/ LYDIE/SIPA.

The primary reason why this is so is because of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (SOMETIMES IN APRIL). His outside perspective of America, his personal connection with the subject and expert use of civil rights activist James Baldwin’s words strengthen the impact of the film, which no doubt had an effect on the festival-goers who attended the film’s premiere.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is based on a treatment that Baldwin wrote for a book he never completed before his untimely death from cancer. It’s a life-affirming video essay that analyzes the nuances of race and class in America during the Civil Rights movement and recent past (most notably the 2014 attacks in Ferguson). While Baldwin died in 1987, his words still hold power in our current social climate.

“We will always need different perspectives, otherwise we would be lost,” Peck said during a recent phone call to promote the film. “That’s why the Baldwin voice is so fundamental. Not only is his voice wise and intelligent, he teaches you how to think and use those instruments no matter what time you’re living.”

There is a sequence in the film when Baldwin says, “when you’re young you see the world only with your eyes, and as you grow up you begin to learn your purpose.” For Baldwin, he had to learn what it meant to be black living in America. From there, he wanted to change people’s view and wake his community up.

Like his three assassinated friends and fellow activists – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – all of whom are used to highlight his perspective in the film, he fought until his dying day, and now, we turn to his voice to makes sense of what we see in today’s world.

“Baldwin speaks directly to you and puts you in front of your reality. Not only you as a citizen of this country but also you as an individual, your intimacy,” Peck said. “He wants you to ask yourself the right questions. It’s hard to maintain a feeling of innocence after the fact.”

In the film, Baldwin describes how terrified he is at the moral apathy – “the death of the heart which is happening in [his] country.” He says people have deluded themselves for so long that they don’t think he is human. He refers to his discriminators as moral monsters. Their purity makes them criminal.

“There’s an extraordinary sentence Baldwin wrote where he said, ‘White doesn’t exist. White is a metaphor for power.’ Who would say that?” Peck asked. “It’s a beautiful sentence and, at the same time, so true. It’s so structural.”

This is the kind of writer and speaker Baldwin was: He had a way of catching you unprepared and, as Peck says, “telling you a fool’s shrew in a way that’s both literary and credible and humanly touching.”

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO opens in limited release on Friday. Dallas: At the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.

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About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.