Of the 20th Century’s three most notable African-American authors – Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin – Baldwin was the most accessible. Often appearing on television and participating in college campus symposiums to discuss the black experience, Baldwin was as much known as a social critic than as an author. Now, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has used Baldwin’s own words (both written and spoken) to piece together a fascinating documentary assessing the present state of race relations in America – even though Baldwin has been dead for 30 years!
Three slain Civil Rights leaders
I Am Not Your Negro makes generous use of existing footage of many of Baldwin’s public and television appearances, as well as the words he wrote, spoken in first person by Samuel L. Jackson. The result is one of the most important films on race ever made. I Am Not Your Negro is structured through Baldwin’s thoughts regarding three Civil Rights leaders assassinated during the 1960s – Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King. At each juncture, we hear Baldwin’s recollections of the slain leader, his memories of their grieving wives and children, and his thoughts on what these murders mean in the context of American society.
Between each of the killings, we hear Baldwin’s words (either by Jackson or directly from the author) superimposed over scenes of racial tension during the Civil Rights movement – the Los Angeles Watts riots of 1965, the Detroit race riots of 1968, the Black Panther rallies, and the civil disobedience that erupted following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Later, we hear Baldwin’s words as we watch the racial tension flare following events which have occurred since Baldwin’s passing – the Rodney King police beating of 1991, the Ferguson, Missouri police brutality riots of two years ago, and so forth. We are left to wonder just how far we’ve come. As Baldwin points out, we pat ourselves on the back when it comes to race relations. We (white Americans) happily point out that slavery has long ended, that African-Americans can now own businesses, that blacks can vote, and so forth. Yet housing remains segregated (which, in effect, segregates schools), church remains segregated, and many businesses remain segregated – whether by intention or not.
The scene which struck me deepest was of a panel discussion regarding race in which a white scholar inquired of Baldwin why he always sees things through a racial filter. He mentions that Baldwin would have more in common with a group of authors and other scholars – regardless of race – than he would with a group of the uneducated. Likewise, a group of multi-racial uneducated would have much more in common than the African-Americans of that group would have with Baldwin.
Baldwin responds that the double-standard exists no matter the person’s place in society. He continues to say that if an Irishman, a Pole, or an Italian were to grab a bullhorn at a rally and scream Patrick Henry’s words “Give me liberty or give me death,” that person would be seen as a hero. If a black man were to scream the exact same words into the exact same bullhorn, he would be seen as an agitator, a scoundrel, and probably a criminal.
Motion pictures as a mirror of race
I was also impressed by the liberal use of motion pictures (as a reflection of society) to detail the perception of African-Americans through the eyes of white Hollywood during the 20th Century. We see blacks portrayed as one step above monkeys in silent films of the 1920s and in the early talkies of the ‘30s, as housekeepers and janitors in the 1940s and ‘50s, and as partial equals in the ‘60s. Even in the more progressive ‘60s, Baldwin comments that African-Americans hated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? because the Sidney Poitier character was a (a) sell-out to the white establishment, and (b) too flawless to be believable. In other words, Poitier’s character was so perfect, what was to dislike, save for his race? We are left to believe Baldwin would have preferred a street thug, to crystallize the point of the film.
Needs more titles
My only criticism is that, as an educated man and a published author, Baldwin speaks like a scholar. He uses long sentences to make his points, and when he finally arrives at the end, I find myself wanting to either hear the sentence again or see it printed before me. Some of Baldwin’s words are printed on the screen, but I would have preferred more. As a viewer (and a white viewer, at that), I would like to have been able to take away even more from this film.
Best Documentary ?
I Am Not Your Negro has been wisely selected as a nominee in this year’s Best Documentary category. I cannot say whether I’d like to see it win, as I have not seen all the nominees, but I was very impressed – not only with Raoul Peck’s film, but with James Baldwin. Much as last year’s Eat This Question did for Frank Zappa, I Am Not Your Negro makes us realize just how much we miss him. We need Baldwin’s presence in this day and age. As that is physically impossible, I Am Not Your Negro will have to do.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/