I Am Not Your Negro (Sadly) Remains Relevant

Directed by Raoul Peck
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13 (language, brief nudity)

Incredibly, there are still those who ask why so much attention is paid to race. This ought to be self-evident in the age of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, but I can think of few more poignant ways of explaining why race matters than Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro*. It is a look at playwright, novelist, and poet James Baldwin, who was also one of the sharpest and smartest social critics of his day. Therein lies a tale of its own; Baldwin's day was 1924 to 1987 and the fact that we wrestle with the same crap with which Baldwin grappled thirty years after his passing is a searing indictment of American society.I Am Not Yur Negor

The film is loosely based on Baldwin's Remember This House, his planned remembrance of three martyrs he knew well: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had finished just 30 pages of this book at the time of his death**, so this film isn't really about these three individuals as much as it is a reflection on what Gunnar Myrdal dubbed An American Dilemma back in 1944: race and racism. Peck's film is a pastiche of words from Baldwin himself, Samuel L. Jackson's narration, and archival footage—some of which features many of Baldwin's friends and associates: Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Lorraine Hansberry, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and others.  But Baldwin didn't even spare friends; he insisted, for example, that most of Poitier's films were a bromide for white audiences. Baldwin also noted that American "entertainment is often difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics," a phrase Peck uses to buckshot his film sprays of images such as a Doris Day film clip followed by Baldwin's trenchant thoughts on school desegregation and archival photographs of Little Rock in 1957. There are also snippets of Hollywood embarrassments such as Dance, Fools, Dance and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  

One of the film's unintentional spotlights is cast upon the dumbing down of American culture. There is footage from The Dick Cavett Show that makes this painfully clear. Watch any (non-PBS) talk show of your choice and ask yourself when was the last time it devoted an entire segment to someone with the articulate genius of James Baldwin, gave that individual free rein to deliver an unvarnished indictment of American society, and then introduced a Yale philosophy professor to comment upon it! (Okay, that guest, Professor Paul Weiss, was a pompous ass, but really—who does this anymore? Surely not Jimmy Fallon or Seth Myers.)

I Am Not Your Negro is not a perfect film. As noted, it isn't really based very much on Remember This House because thirty pages isn't much to go on. Whether Peck's structure is a brilliant patch job or a chaotic jumble probably depends upon the age of viewers and their familiarity with the people, events, and references flashing on the screen. In a controversial move, Peck completely ignored Baldwin's homosexuality. It's contentious whether doing so was an inexcusable obliteration or a wise choice that kept the focus on race. It is, however, completely fair to take Peck to task for suggesting that Malcolm X's assassination was a direct result of white racism. Malcolm was, indeed, often the subject of white ire, but his 1965 murder was at the hands of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group. ***   

Still, I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful look at white privilege. Baldwin's charge that "This is not the land of the free" is, tragically, as true then as now. There is a telling moment near the end of the film in which he claims, "I can't be a pessimist because I am alive. I'm forced to be an optimist." Yet Baldwin's worn countenance, his heavy sighs, his arched eyebrow, and his resort to scolding are the marks of a prematurely aged fighter who has taken enough blows for one lifetime. Still, all Americans should feel the sting his punishing left hook: "What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it." 

Rob Weir

* For younger readers, "Negro" was the preferred term for African Americans in post-World War Two America until around 1974, when it was supplanted by the term "black." The "Black Power" movement of the late 1960s and James Brown's 1968 hit single, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" were instrumental in shifting language in ways consonant with black-generated cultural identities, but it took a while for these to shake their associations with fringe radicalism.  

** When Baldwin died, his publisher, McGraw Hill, attempted to sue his estate for the return of a $200,000 advance. This suit was dropped in 1990, an outcome occasioned by public outcry and negative publicity. 

*** Malcolm X was a Nation of Islam loyalist until a 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, which convinced him that the exclusivity of Black Muslims was wrong, as was their assumption that all non-whites were racist. He became a universalist Sunni Muslim, thereby infuriating the Nation of Islam. 

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