I Am Not Your Negro (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

It’s a fine tribute to one of America’s great writers and thinkers, whose work is more relevant than ever.

2016 was an unusually good year for documentaries, and one of the best was Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. For once, the Academy agrees with me, because I Am Not Your Negro is one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature. It’s a fine tribute to one of America’s great writers and thinkers, whose work is more relevant than ever in the age of President Trump.

The phrase “I wasn’t born too soon, they changed the rules too late” is attributed to James “Cool Papa” Bell, a star player on several Negro League teams in the years before professional baseball was integrated, but it applies just as well to James Baldwin, a writer and thinker so far ahead of his time that many would regard him as a radical today. Early in I Am Not Your Negro, we see a clip of Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show, being asked by the host if he feels hopeful about the status of the Negro. I’m pretty sure Cavett never reflected on the fact that this is the type of question only asked by people who consider themselves to be the norm (in this case, white) of those they consider to be outside the norm (in this case, black), but he should have. Those outside the norm have no such luxury (imagine if a woman had asked Freud what men want), but Baldwin avoids pointing this out and instead simply says that to him the racial climate of America seems hopeless.

This exchange took place in 1968, at a time when, to many Americans, it seemed as if huge gains had been made by the Civil Rights movement (too many, according to some white Americans, even if they knew better than to say so in public). Baldwin’s calm, honest answer reveals that he lives in a different reality from the host, and he’s not planning to discard his perspective in order to fit in with that of white people in authority, however genial their manner. Baldwin’s insistence on seeing and expressing his own truth, rather than making concessions for the sake of politeness, and his refusal to accept small improvements in status in lieu of the full acceptance of his and other black people’s humanity, are constant themes in his writing and in his life.

I Am Not Your Negro doesn’t attempt to provide a cradle-to-grave biography of Baldwin, but instead creates a sort of collage made up of archival footage (much from popular movies, on which Baldwin wrote cogently) and selections from Baldwin’s works, the latter read by Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, every line of narration comes from Baldwin’s writings or letters; there’s no voice of God narration to string it all together. Some of the works quoted are well-known, other not. In the latter category is a book Baldwin had just begun at the time of his death, in which he planned to tell the stories of slain Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro has already picked many honors from, among others, the Toronto International Film Festival (People’s Choice Award), the Chicago International Film Festival (Audience Choice Award), the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film), and the International Documentary Association (Creative Recognition Award). It’s well worth your time—and may well motivate you to head to the library to read some of Baldwin’s work for yourself. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply