'I Am Not Your Negro' is a powerful examination of America’s race problem
PHOTO BY VELVET FILM
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Where is it playing?: The Palm
What's it rated?: PG-13
What's it worth?: $ Full price
What's it worth?: $ Full price
Director Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Sometimes in April) directs this documentary about gay, black, public intellectual, activist, and author James Baldwin’s last unfinished novel, Remember This House, which tells the story of race in America. It features archival footage of Baldwin and Dick Cavett, as well as narration by Samuel L. Jackson. The film is nominated for Best Documentary Feature as this year’s Academy Awards. (93 min.)
Glen: I’ll never truly know what it’s like to be a black man in America, but through Baldwin’s words and the deft filmmaking of Peck, I’m definitely closer to understanding, and it’s not pretty. In fact, I found myself in turns profoundly saddened and morally outraged as this film rolled out its story. Crafted from 30 unpublished pages of notes that Baldwin had amassed for a book he planned to write that would tell the story of race relations in the U.S. through the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., the film uses archival footage and photographs intermixed with clips of current racial unrest in places like Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere to show how slavery, Jim Crow laws, and systemic racism continues to plague us even today. As Baldwin explains, until America can come to grips with its past and how it informs the present, African-Americans will never be fully accepted as Americans. If you believe the myth that we’re living in a post-racial society, this film offers a counter narrative.
Anna: While most trips to the theater are filed under entertainment, every once in a while a film comes along that truly feels important, and I Am Not Your Negro is one of those. Skillfully blended footage ties racial problems we face today such as police violence, the riots in Ferguson, and systemic racism still rampant in our country with archival footage of school integration, protests, and retaliation from the civil rights era of the ’60s—and the continued violence between then and now. If it wasn’t for the change in dress and the style of weapon carried by police, it would be difficult to tell the timelines apart. They speak to the relentless struggle for the same rights and freedoms afforded to their white counterparts and the leaders willing to give their lives to the cause. Baldwin is a skilled and powerful writer and his words read like a letter, or perhaps a plea: Acknowledge this thing that is racism in America. Stop brushing over it, or calling yourself color blind, or pretending that the African-American struggle is no different from the struggle for religious freedom, from women’s rights, from any other that our country has seen. Interviews with Baldwin himself show what an intelligent, serious man he was, one who was deep in thought and compassion. He grieves the loss he’s forced to live with simply because he allies himself with black men of action and powerful conviction. Moving to say the least, I Am Not Your Negro is a powerhouse of a raw reality, and Baldwin’s words speak for then, for now, and into the future of race relations and equality.
Glen: I have to give props to Jackson’s narration. His familiar voice is subdued here, lending gravitas to Baldwin’s insightful words. One question Baldwin poses is why does white America need a “n*****”? What is it in the American psyche that demands this “other,” this whipping boy, this dog to kick? It’s a haunting question that goes beyond the idea of cheap (or free) labor, control, scapegoating, or whatever else you can come up with and questions the very roots of white supremacy. Peck often lingers over close-ups of the white faces in old lynching, school integration, and civil rights photos. Who are these angry young men and women, their faces either smiling maniacally or twisted into an angry mask? Why did they need to put “n******” in their place, to string them up, to beat them for sitting at a lunch counter, to scream at them as they walk into a school. There’s something wrong with us, something twisted and broken, and it’s our culture that has led to this. We just had a half-black president for the first time in history, and the reaction to that temperate, intellectual, thoughtful man is Donald J. Trump, an infantile, bigoted, vindictive, and thoughtless anti-intellectual. As Baldwin admonishes, if we ever hope to move on, we need to figure out what’s wrong with our culture and fix it. This film holds a mirror up to America, and I for one, don’t like what’s staring back.
Anna: The film’s timing in concurrence with our roiling political situation is impossible to ignore, especially with Trump’s recent press conference and his statement that he’s the “least racist person you’ve ever met” at the same time pleading ignorance as to what the Congressional Black Caucus is and telling the questioning black reporter to “set up a meeting.” Sadly, the people who most earnestly need to see this film probably never will, and the cycle of racism, violence, and injustice is bound to continue. It serves as a stark reminder that what we choose to ignore, especially in affluent, white America, does not override the truth of what continues to happen in our country. When on a TV panel, Baldwin’s view is challenged by a white man who claims that devising differences over race is simply a matter of choosing a hardship, one that can be swapped out with any other dividing line—religion, class, or culture. He’s quickly shut down when Baldwin points to the fact that while such institutions may not say that they are against the black man, they certainly demonstrate it, and he can only draw his conclusions from those actions. I Am Not Your Negro is a gut-punching reminder of where race still stands in America, not just where we have come from, but also how very far we have left to go. Again, I think this film is an important one, one I will no doubt think back to again and again as more news stories unfold with the same headline featuring a young black man, police violence, and the never-ending struggle of black life in America.
Split Screen is written by New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.