NOT EVERYTHING THAT IS FACED CAN BE CHANGED, BUT NOTHING CAN BE CHANGED UNTIL IT IS FACED
I Am Not Your Negro
Review by Paul Preston
Books are great, but man oh man do I love movies. So here comes a project that’s right up my alley – an unfinished book whose pieces were picked up by a production team and made into a movie!
But if I could be not so glib for a moment, it doesn’t matter the method used to make this thorough examination of the mistreatment of black people in America, it does matter that it’s worth taking in. The text at the heart of I Am Not Your Negro is that of James Baldwin, a prominent author and social critic of the 1940s-1960s. He was writing a book called Remember This House, an account of three friends of his who had all been assassinated – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin died before the book was complete, but the thirty or so pages that he had begun form the arc of this film, narrated in voice over by Samuel L. Jackson.
You’ve never heard Jackson this pensive and thoughtful, and it’ll remind you that he’s capable of great things as an actor, but too often is hired to do his Samuel L. Jackson thing, which usually has something to do with snakes and a plane. Jackson speaks Baldwin’s words with authority when necessary, revolt when necessary and peacefully, when necessary, as the film starts out with a mission statement that seems as if the movie is going to be an assault, but just-as-quickly ruminates on the days of Baldwin’s youth, when he was mentored by a white female teacher. Before America went race-crazy…again.
I knew little about James Baldwin before this film, but anyone who comes out on the other side of this documentary is guaranteed a provocative introduction to him. The film begins with his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. You immediately get that he’s the most eloquent guy in the room, and even Cavett’s attempt to get him to go head to head with a white Yale professor ends up with the Yale professor sent packing.
James Baldwin was inspirationally unique in that he was a friend of Malcolm X, yet didn’t share his hatred of whites. He seemed to dislike the Kennedys even more than MLK. Further research after seeing the film shows that he spent a lot of time in France. I wonder how well he’d be known and how important his words would be if he was in America even more often than he was, ‘cause he seemed to be around and speak up when we were at our worst.
Throughout this movie, director Raoul Peck and his production team find a wide variety of footage to back Baldwin’s message and stories. From archival footage of Baldwin himself to news clips, films he references (such as The Defiant Ones) to smart use of ones he doesn’t. There’s even one jump cut that’s bone-to-space-station-in-2001-esque that takes us from protest movements in the ‘60s to Ferguson, MO in one hard cut. And it takes a second to realize you’ve made that jump. Baldwin’s prose is as urgent as ever.
By the end of the film, three black leaders will be slain. Three of Baldwin’s friends. The film never gets maudlin or over-sentimentalized. The photos of lynchings and abuse of blacks people just trying to go to school says it all. I Am Not Your Negro wears its defiance on its sleeve, but without having to wear the whole shirt. Director Peck finds just the right tone to make the movie appealing (mostly through how easy it is to find Baldwin appealing) without unappealing, overbearing filmmaking, and despite the horrible lack of appeal there was in the day-to-day lives of black people in mid-1900s America.
This is a unique and vital film.
I Am Not Your Negro arrived on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on May 2nd.
Directed by: Raoul Peck
Release Date: February 17, 2017
Run Time: 93 Minutes
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures