I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
It's rare when I use terms like these when discussing a movie, but with I Am Not Your Negro, I would tell people that this is a film that should be seen if one wants to get an insight into the state of America through African-American eyes. Those eyes belong to noted author and essayist James Baldwin, one who saw America through a glass darkly, and with reason. Using his words, archival footage, and film/television clips from his time and ours, I Am Not Your Negro is like a voice long gone, calling out in the wilderness and out of the past, 'Wake up, America...before it is too late".
The basis for I Am Not Your Negro is an unfinished book by Baldwin to have been titled Remember This House. The book would have been an exploration of America's race issue through the examination of the assassinations of three men: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Three M's, if you like). Baldwin knew and worked with them all, and the killings of these three men who each attempted to address the racial inequality in America through different means would have been the launching point in Baldwin's meditations.
Baldwin did not complete Remember This House, but director/writer Raoul Peck uses Baldwin's 30 pages from Remember This House to expand on how Baldwin saw the immense racial difficulties in America. Peck, in turn, takes from both the unfinished Remember This House and Baldwin's other works and speeches to draw a fascinating, disturbing, and necessary portrait of a nation still wracked with confusion and contradiction on the issue of race.
Baldwin's words and thoughts come thundering to us, almost admonishing us from beyond the grave on how America's racial divide has not diminished. I Am Not Your Negro shows us Baldwin's contempt for the 'generosity' of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's assertion in 1965 that in 40 years there could be a 'Negro' President, to end with President Barack Obama (elected 43 years after Kennedy's prediction).
With the election of a black President, however, I Am Not Your Negro also shows us the protests in Ferguson, the continued conflict between the (primarily white) police force and the (primarily black) prison/arrested population. It is both a repudiation of overt bigotry and the liberal assertion that 'things are getting better for African-Americans'.
As an aside, I can imagine Baldwin would not have been overwhelmed with the election of Obama to the Presidency; it is not so much that he would not have supported it (or even been slightly happy about it), but that he would fear that Obama's election would somehow signal to whites that we were indeed in a 'post-racial' America, where the deep racial problems that America has had were now at an end. Far from that, I believe Baldwin would say. Things are not better just because a black man is in the Oval Office.
I Am Not Your Negro also delves into how African-Americans are portrayed by a predominantly white entertainment/cultural industry. Baldwin was not amused at how African-Americans were portrayed: neither in stereotypes where they were subservient, almost happy, at being servants and docile, nor in 'liberal' films that were supposed to be uplifting. He had particular ire towards Gary Cooper and Doris Day ('grotesque symbol of innocence' is his summation of Day, and while I can't remember if that's how he saw Cooper, his and John Wayne's strength on screen was not to his liking due to seeing how white society wouldn't stand for a black man having the same moral certitude, complete with gun).
However, Baldwin wasn't pleased with films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? or The Defiant Ones, where he saw that white liberals creating an ideal black figure in Sydney Poitier (whom he liked as a person and was friends with), one that in his own way fit into their idea of black manhood, a more romanticized version they could metaphorically take home to Mother.
Baldwin, in short, did not believe whites or white society was racist in overt words but in actions, ignorant of reality they both created and refused to face. It was a racism not of maliciousness but of apathy.
Peck constantly and brilliantly mixes Baldwin's words and archival footage into a mosaic that includes contemporary scenes, illustrating that despite the passage of time and the nearly thirty years since his death, the world has changed little since then.
Curiously, no mention is made on #OscarsSoWhite and the controversy over last year's failure to nominate one African-American or non-Caucasian actor/actress despite high praise for many black actors/actresses.
The big surprise to anyone watching I Am Not Your Negro is that the film is narrated, using Baldwin's words, by Samuel L. Jackson. The actor best known for his 'furious anger' and intense vocal style is soft, gentle, almost unrecognizable. Jackson channels Baldwin's more hushed tones and lets the eloquence of his words, mixed with a righteous fury, come forth. We can imagine it is James Baldwin coming to speak to us, and Jackson shows that he is more than his screen image.
Powerful, provocative, thought-provoking, like the man himself, I Am Not Your Negro is a film that will make anyone: black, white, liberal, conservative, look into his/her own worldview and question it. It will make the viewer examine where he/she stands on issues regarding race.
It is that long-clichéd and overused term 'conversation on race' come straight to us. It is a film that should be seen by anyone wondering on this painful, sometimes violent, but perhaps still hopeful American experience.