I Am Not Your Negro – Review
The Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” is a piercing film about writer, poet, and social critic James Baldwin. He was one of our most critical advocates for equality, and his work holds an essential place in the canon of American literature. The film finds its structure from Baldwin’s own words. Read by Samuel Jackson in the most understated performance of his career, those words have a renewed relevance today. Back-to-back shows have run at the Film Forum this month. It’s one of the most important films you’ll see all year.
I came to James Baldwin through Maya Angelou from an interview I did with her for Oprah’s Master Class. She recalled learning about the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I fell into a depression I’d never known before. What on earth had happened to my country? …I locked the door and refused to answer the phone, answer the door. James Baldwin was my brother friend. Jimmy Baldwin after a few days came to my apartment and bamalamalama on the door, “wham.” He said, “Open this door or I’ll do this until the police come!” So I opened the door. I hadn’t had a bath, I hadn’t had a shower, I hadn’t eaten. He said “first you’re going to have a drink then you’re going to eat then you take a bath, then you put some clothes on I’m taking you somewhere.” And Jimmy said, “You need to laugh.”
Baldwin was a realist. He wasn’t trying to minimize Angelou’s anguish. He was trying to get her to survive it.
In an interview on NPR, director Raoul Peck revealed that he had wanted to tell James Baldwin’s story for years but struggled with the structure. He knew he’d discovered the entry into the film when he read a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent about wanting to explore the lives of three of his close personal friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other as in truth they did and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much who betrayed them and for whom they gave their lives.”
In the film, Peck lets Baldwin speak for himself. Primary archival footage of Baldwin comes from an appearance on a television program The Negro and the American Promise (1963), a Cambridge University Debate (1965) and as a guest on the Dick Cavett Show (1968). And yet, the film is not backward facing. Peck presents Baldwin’s words with images of today, of things that have happened in my lifetime: the beating of Rodney King, photographs of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin and footage of Ferguson and Baltimore.
It takes a moment to get used to the visual language and the jumps in time, but the words, the words, provide the clarity and continuity. Baldwin’s words have a buttery feel that belie their impact. His cadence delivers his point, and the emotion writhing under the surface boils over into the personal. For this reason, I’ll let his words do the rest.
Consider his criticism of American cinema as it relates to identity:
“This means in the case of the American Negro, born in that glittering republic..and in that moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too. it came as a great shock around the age of five, six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”
Peck is masterful at juxtaposition. In the following passage Baldwin speaks in voiceover while the screen fills with 1950s footage of young, lilly-white women prancing around at a beauty pageant in all their Kodachrome glory:
“There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precisely are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how are you going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart that is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”
And there is grace in the final chapter:
“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”
How is it possible, with everything this man was affronted, that he could remain an optimist? Is it that strength of character that comforted his sister-friend Maya Angelou all those years ago? Is it that strength that brought him back to America during the civil rights movement to bear witness? Is it that strength that drove him to write and talk about what he saw? And what do we do with his words today?