Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews I Am Not Your Negro,  directed by Raoul Peck and featuring James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Image from film I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, produced by Velvet Film et al, streamed by Kanopy database.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO

A profoundly sobering, potentially incendiary piece of film making, the 2016 adaptation of James Baldwin’s final, unfinished piece of writing is a document that vibrates off the screen with all the power of undeniable truths told with a sober articulation and beauty. It is a document that demands to be seen and leaves those unexposed to it poorer for their neglect. In short, this is what movies can do at their very best:  grab their audience by the heart and pull them close, provoke and embrace.

James Baldwin was one of the great writers and thinkers of 20th century American literature. I would posit that it’s impossible to read his novels without viscerally experiencing the longing, fear, frustration and profound elegance that is threaded through all of his works. The 2018 adaptation of his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” into a major film is a wonderful example of taking the spirit of source material and translating its emotional core into a different medium. A globally celebrated figure, while remaining an outcast due to his race and sexuality, Baldwin’s unsparing gaze and evaluation of the world around him was never pitiless in its judgement, but all the more cutting for the empathy and humanity he refused to renounce, even when faced with a world that must have seemed past saving at times.

Baldwin’s final project was to have been a book titled "Remember This House" – a book that would examine the lives and deaths of three of Baldwin’s colleagues, NAACP representative Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. In his own words:

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.

By offering his reflections on the lives of three very different men fighting against the same tide in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, a picture of not only them but their country could be reached. Unfortunately, an outline is all that was left at the time of the author’s passing in 1987.

I Am Not Your Negro is the result of these musings, filtered through the staggering media collage put together by director Raoul Peck to highlight and bring to life not only the rudiments of "Remember This House", but to also give us a look into a writer’s soul and the world he navigated. The substantial media coverage of the story’s protagonists, and the eloquence of Baldwin’s words means that this movie is able to avoid the pitfalls of many modern documentaries – over explanation from our narrator, re-enacted dramatisations of actual events, and the bane of this kind of project – the dreaded animated sequence. There is in fact so much information and emotion to be processed, that keeping the film stripped down to Baldwin’s text (excellently delivered by Samuel L Jackson), supplemental footage of past and present America, and several revelatory television and public appearances gives resonance to its ideas as opposed to smothering them. The film becomes something like a cathedral for the delivery of its subject’s ideas as opposed to being obsessed with itself and what it can do.

More than anything, this is an emotive piece. It’s a meditation about a troubled time, and how present-day America is a new strain of the bitter fruit that seasonally sprouts from a ground laced with poison, blood and lies. It’s about James Baldwin’s own regrets, his conflicts and friendships and his observations as the son of a country that he felt would always push him away even as he professed his love for it and its people. In the end, talking about it feels reductive when one could just instead be immersed in it, terrors and all.

The joy of being able to look briefly inside the mind of James Baldwin, a writer whose eloquence resounds even louder in an age where language and truth shudder under a pervasive corruption, is one of the great gifts of this work - his prose as full of dread and beauty as it ever was in his final work. This is a movie that is essential for fans of cinema, and highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in grace or wisdom.

Further reading

  • Going to meet the man. Williams, Thomas Chatterton, 2017. Sight and Sound; Vol. 27 (5), pp. 48-50. (article)
  • “He Gave Me the Words”: An Interview with Raoul Peck. Mirakhor, Leah; 2017. James Baldwin Review, Vol. 3(1), pp. 203-216. (article
  • Baldwin’s Mill: Race, Punishment, and the Pedagogy of Repression, 1965–2015. Miller, Reuben Jonathan ; Miller, Janice Williams ; Djoric, Jelena Zeleskov ; Patton, Desmond ; Seamster, Louise & Henricks, Kasey (eds); 2015. Humanity & Society, Vol.39(4), pp.456-475. (article)
  • ‘Flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone’: James Baldwin’s racial politics of boundness. Beard, Lisa A., 2016. Contemporary Political Theory; Vol. 15 (4), pp. 378-398. (article)
  • James Baldwin : America and Beyond / Kaplan, Cora, and Bill Schwarz. University of Michigan Press, 2011. (ebook)
  • Understanding James Baldwin / Dudley, Marc. University of South Carolina Press, 2019. (ebook)
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