Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Daniel Symons

A nauseating insight into the USA’s grossly discriminatory past, present and future.

james baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro is in no sense an easy watch, and rightly so. The documentary portrays America’s deeply problematic past with institutionalised racism, and the attitudes and aggressions towards people of colour that this spawned in wider society, which continue to exist today. Underlying the fundamental premise of the movie is James Baldwin (pictured above), a prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s, and his memoir Remember This House, which documents Baldwin’s experiences of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The release of the film in 2016 could not be more apt, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri occurring before, the rise to prominence of Trump occurring during, and the Charlottesville protests happening immediately after its release. Baldwin’s dialogue and impassioned plea for racial equality needed a platform to be vocalised – and it happened to be through Raoul Peck’s 2010 documentary film, a chronological context within which it could not bear more relevance.

Samuel L. Jackson proved to be the most suited narrator, having grown up in Tennessee and lived through the period of focus of the movie as a black man. Jackson’s emotion permeates the fourth wall, and transgresses simple narration, tending more to feel like an autobiography, because he will have a lived experience of many of the situations portrayed. The whole 93 minutes of viewing feel like a window has been opened into the lives of African-American civil rights activists, and even to the most informed of viewers, each scene depicting Baldwin or King Jr. speaking about race combined with Jackson’s narrating and Baldwin’s sophisticated and candid memoir yields an unfounded insight into what life might have been like for an outspoken person of colour during the era.

One black and white film depicts a somewhat flustered black woman, coming into a school to collect her clearly mortified daughter early. When the class learn of the relationship between the apparently white girl and her mother, shocked mumblings and comments ripple around the classroom. Although the nature of the material shown to us is largely black and white (and so implying obsolescence), this couldn’t be further from the truth; with adverts perpetuating a racial hierarchy and upholding racist mantras surviving today (such as in the case of H&M, Dove and Heineken); as is the case with the black woman coming to collect her embarrassed ‘ white passing’ daughter, as this reflects an enduring issue – that so many people are afraid to reveal their true identity, for fear of ridicule and abuse.

Baldwin’s activism served as a middle ground to that of King Jr.’s and X’s, with the former choosing a nonviolent resistance approach, and the latter tending to use more forceful and violent methods of influence in the fight for liberation. What proves wilfully emotive is looking at the ostracization of Baldwin within the civil rights movement (though he does not like being associated with the term), with King Jr. describing homosexuality as something that can be overcome (Baldwin was open about being gay), and yet the notion of this is lacking in the film, which does slightly evade its purpose as a personification of Baldwin’s memoir about X, King Jr. and Evers, contextualised in terms of the civil rights movement, era and his life.

Nonetheless, clips of Baldwin speaking at Cambridge University and on talk shows correctly portray him as a direct yet nuanced public figure, and reflect his importance in the movement as a highly intellectual and calming influence, exemplified by comments such as: “Afro-Americans. Which is but a wedding, however, of two confusions,” which is deeply thought-provoking and problematic, as he is insinuating that the African American identity is paradoxical. Baldwin was not atypical in his then anarchistic views towards colonialism, racism and liberation, exemplified by the strong support of the audience in some situations, not least because Baldwin would often be debating with a conservative white male, who wouldn’t nearly rival him in urbaneness.

Overall, Baldwin is relevant today – his words were visionary in unwittingly outlining and predicting the future, and this could not be clearer throughout the film as there are glimpses into recent events in the Black Lives Matter movement, with an accompanying Baldwin quote. The past is not just the past, it is also the present, and the future as well.

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