We live in odd political times. The seemingly impossibility of a black man becoming President of the United States of America was realized only to face unprecedented obstruction and to be followed by a man that has earned the universal support of neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. There are those that want to pretend that the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery but merely states’ rights. There are those that will retort to any utterance of “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” as if they’re determined to miss the point entirely. It’s an unfortunate situation that there are so many Americans who want to just wish away the sins of our nation’s past, content to live the lie that cruelty and oppression of systematic white supremacy was washed away 50 years ago. It wasn’t washed away. It was merely diluted.
Director Raoul Peck understands that sins of America’s past shape its present, and crafts a striking documentary about race in America with I Am Not Your Negro. Using the unfinished novel by James Baldwin, Remember This House, Peck uses Baldwin’s unpublished words and archival footage to trace the parallels between the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and the present America we currently live in. Few films in 2016 have even a fraction of the social power as I Am Not Your Negro, making it one of the most vital documentaries of the year and must-see viewing for any American.
Remember This House was to be Baldwin’s recollections of the Civil Rights Movement through his memory of three slain leaders of the movement – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The unpublished manuscript is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, who tones down his delivery so much that I was unaware it was him until the closing credits. Baldwin recalls the separate personalities of each of these iconic figures as well as the differences in how they approached the movement. At one point, after Peck has cut away to archival footage of a television interview featuring Baldwin alongside Malcom X and King, the author reminisces about how the gulf between the two shortened over time, as if each learned from their experiences what was truly effective and reached similar conclusions. Fascinating is how Baldwin diverges from these icons, neither a Christian nor a Muslim, nor a member of the NAACP like Evers.
James Baldwin also diverged from his contemporaries with his rhetoric. He doesn’t possess the fiery anger of Malcom X nor does he possess the even-keeled optimism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Those differences really emerge with the clearly worded, insightful analysis of America. He analyzes the pop culture and how it perpetuates the status quo. In a haunting examination, Baldwin recalls loving cowboy adventures with Gary Cooper until realizing that the Indians that Cooper is mowing down with his six-shooter represents himself and people like him.
No other observation by Baldwin cuts right to it than the notion that there’s much a difference between the North and South of America. Just because the figures in the South were more blatant in their bigotry doesn’t make the systemic issues throughout the rest of the country any less prevalent, and Raoul Peck underscores this notion by cutting away to images from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
I Am Not Your Negro is so powerful because of the way Peck is able to place the words of Baldwin within a modern context that put right in our face that the sins of the past have shaped our present. America is a nation that is built with pluralistic ideals yet often ignored those ideals when it came to Black Americans. You can’t separate racism and America because the two are intrinsically tied together. The only way to destroy that notion is to confront the reality of our past, of the blood that built this nation and the hate that courses through its veins. You can’t cure an illness if you believe there’s no disease and I Am Not Your Negro is there to remind us that racism in America is a hereditary disease.
I Am Not Your Negro
- Overall Score
Using an unpublished manuscript and archival footage of James Baldwin, Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a startling portrait of race relations in America and one of the most powerful, vital films of the year.