I Am Not Your Negro, 2016.
Directed by Raoul Peck.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Piecing together James Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember This House about race relations in America. Tells the story of his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Trailers specifically chosen for this film” comes the voice-over from the screen. We then see not one but two Jessica Chastain movies, The Sense of an Ending and the upcoming re-release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Now, these could all be fine movies in their own right, however saying “specifically chosen for this film” and then the only person that isn’t white in all of these trailers is Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? This, I believe is noteworthy not just to fill word count but as an issue in and of itself. A movie detailing black oppression within America and the lack of representation within media (a point we see later in the documentary) plays straight after seemingly carefully selected movies with no black actors or actresses and the only person of colour to be seen is a character from a movie that is forty-two years old.
As someone who found it difficult to break into acting as a white male, I don’t happen to know the struggle that non-white actors or actresses face, neither would I pretend to be knowledgeable on the issues that people of colour face. This documentary does do a stellar job informing its audience of not only James Baldwin and some of his close friends, but also of his experience of race segregation and his own struggles with self-identity during the Jim Crow era. Narrated here by Samuel L. Jackson and taken from Baldwin’s thirty page manuscript, we are given vivid storytelling through archival footage of interviews and movies that made an impact on him and the American people.
As James Baldwin has been dead for nearly three decades, most of the runtime documents the time period between the 50’s and 60’s, although we do get cuts from recent events such as Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 as well as the killings of black Americans. Questions are raised from talk show hosts (during archival footage) directly asking their guests, including Malcolm X and Baldwin, others are proposed by director, Raoul Peck. Both are as hard-hitting and necessary as each other.
As a piece of work, I Am Not Your Negro brings its own truth in its depiction of the lives that make the documentary so involving. One of the talk show segments show Paul Weiss, a Yale Professor brought on in order to possibly be used as the counter opinion. As this unfolds before us, it turns into a moment wherein you can feel the weight of each word as it is so eloquently assembled from Baldwin’s mouth.
As the quote from Bertolt Brecht goes “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” James Baldwin’s hammer was his words and ones that should not be missed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★