I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

brooke A part of me wants to skip this review and say that anyone reading should stop what they’re doing and go watch I Am Not Your Negro, but I’m excited to talk about it. But also, stop what you’re doing and go watch it.

casey I think James Baldwin tends to be an overlooked figure in the history of American civil rights. I wasn’t aware of him until a few years ago, and am not as familiar with his writing as I’d like to be. But I think we’re living in a moment when consciousness about race and racism is higher than it’s ever been in my life, which makes it a perfect time to become (re)acquainted with Baldwin. Fortunately, I Am Not Your Negro is an amazing vessel for that.

brooke Truly. I Am Not Your Negro is based on a 30 page unfinished manuscript Baldwin wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evars–three men who died young fighting for civil rights. Baldwin briefly laments outliving them, and then most of the film is spent discussing those lives and the treatment of African American people in the US.

casey Nearly every word in the documentary is Baldwin’s, in the form of television excerpts, letters, and manuscript pages, with the written content voiced by Samuel L. Jackson. The loose narrative is roughly chronological, beginning with Baldwin’s return from France to join the nascent civil rights movement in 1957 and continuing through its successes and tragedies in the 60s. He was in many ways an outsider: non-religious, gay, and unaffiliated organizations like the NAACP, which seems to have influenced his strikingly unique, and still depressingly relevant, voice. Through his writing and speaking he issued biting indictments of American society and the racial hierarchies it created and tolerated, a system that made apathetic monsters of a white majority too caught up in fearfulness and consumerism to question why it created its racial categories in the first place.

brooke It hits a similar notes to those in 13th, but dives deeper into the philosophy of whiteness and blackness and why those on top (whites) need to hold everyone else down. To compare the two, I’d say 13th is an undergrad’s argumentative essay and I Am Not Your Negro is a graduate thesis. The latter uses powerful archive footage of the 60s Detroit riots and Ferguson in 2014 and juxtaposes that imagery under Baldwin’s words, provoking a serious consideration of the damage that ‘whiteness’ does in a mixed race society.

casey The movie demands active attention thanks to Baldwin’ writing style, which moved fluidly  between autobiography, history, and moral exhortation. His off-the-cuff speaking was equally complete and eloquent, and he comes across as a towering figure despite an unimposing physical presence. And there’s more to him that the documentary only touches on, including his sexuality, his personal life, and his fiction.

brooke This movie drew me in with everything it did, especially Jackson’s voiceover and Baldwin’s clips. And I personally liked that the movie expects you to know what was going on given that Baldwin’s writing assumes some familiarity with the Civil Rights movement, Brown v Board of Education, Black Panthers, etc.. Watching it all play out made me want to deepen my own personal education about the era.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is how director Raoul Peck weaves it all together seamlessly with modern-day movements without taking away from Baldwin’s voice, including striking images of police brutality and of white people protesting integration and other civil rights protests, then and now.

casey That’s a perfect way to put it: it assumes you’ve done some homework already.

brooke And puts you in the mood to do more.

casey I Am Not Your Negro is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen, one that engaged with my heart and intellect. It offers a strikingly unique and personal perspective on history and meaning of civil rights, and in presenting the great figures of the era as real people. That leads me to the movie’s final lines, an excerpt from an interview Baldwin gave in 1963. Even substituting the harsh slurs more common in the past for socially acceptable ones like “thug” or “rioter,” this resonates with me, and like the movie, it’s best to hear it straight from the source:

The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

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