‘I am Not Your Negro’ Chronicles the Life of James Baldwin but Fails to Show Resolutions for Today’s Crises

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Haitian born filmmaker, Raoul Peck gives an international perspective on the Black and White race relations beginning with the Civil Right Movement and peppers in imagery from today’s #BlackLivesMatter in his documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

The narrative follows the life of James Baldwin, a Civil Rights activist and prolific author who was a close friend of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What was originally supposed to be Baldwin’s manuscript entitled Remember This House, which only had 30-pages at the time of his death in 1987, we find Peck picking up where Baldwin left off on this delicate topic using archival footage of Baldwin from various interviews and lectures.

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary begins with Baldwin being interviewed with Dick Cavett asks candidly why the “Negro race” weren’t hopeful as there were people of their background in commercials and mayors of cities. Baldwin responds with, “I don’t think there is much hope in it, to tell you the truth. As long as people are using this peculiar language. It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here. To the Black man here. That’s a very vivid question to me, you know, but the real question is what’s going to happen to this country when you repeat that?”

Jumping nearly 50 years into to the future following that interview, we are shown still images with a Blues music track of police in riot gear and Black American citizen being detained that parallel images of the early 1960s in the Southern United States.

Readings from various excerpts of Baldwin’s letters, notes from his original manuscript, along with news clips and the addition of various styles of music associated with the Black Experience of the times makes this a beautifully filmed documentary with powerful imagery that doesn’t play towards “White Guilt,” but opens a window into the world of which Baldwin lived.

The only problem with I Am Not Your Negro is when the documentary transitions to images of the last five years. It shows how times really haven’t changed, but it doesn’t show any of us on the outside looking in any resolution to the continued conflicts between White and Black people. We are left wondering how will those two groups find a way to resolved these almost ancient issues that have had intertwined them for over 400 years within North America and primarily the United States.

Now most of the readers of this review will geer, “THIS IS A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE FOR EVERYONE NOT JUST TWO RACES!” Sure, that’s semi true, but race relations in America will forever be rooted between Whites and Blacks, the rest of us are an after thought and truth-be-told, that’s okay…for now. You have to resolve the first issue before you can move on to the next.

Race relations between White and Black people will always be the primary focus, unfortunately this documentary doesn’t open that dialogue. It addresses the issues between the two but does not ask the questions most people are terrified to ask: “We know the history, now how do we prepare for the future?”, “What do we need to do now, to fix relations between both races?” and “Even after we find out how we need to fix those relations, are we willing to do so?”

Baldwin’s explanations might strike a nerve for those timid to discuss this topic and just want it all to be fine and dandy, but if 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, they still have never been addressed, then they need to be pointed out again.

Where Peck fails is by not showing how they can be addressed when showing the incident in Ferguson or Trayvon Martin. If he had solely focused on Baldwin, this would be a 5 out 5 documentary, but just to show recent situations without asking those tough questions lowers the score of what easily could have been shown in classrooms across North America.

What I Am Not Your Negro did do successfully, is peak my interest in reading Baldwin’s writings and if those are half as interesting as his interviews were, I will be in for some fun reads.

I Am Not Your Negro opens in theaters on Friday, February 3, 2017.

I Am Not Your Negro
  • Overall Score

The Verdict

The only place where I Am Not Your Negro fails is by not asking the tough questions on how do the two races who are so intertwined in each others histories come to a reconciliation. Beyond that it is a work of art.

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