Last week, I attended the Cornell Cinema screening of Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. I went for one of my film classes, intending to observe its cinematography and formal construction. I did a quick read up on the film before entering the theatre, understanding that it was crafted around the words of the late James Baldwin, but I had no sense of how pertinent and striking the documentary would be. I Am Not Your Negro surprised me in more ways than one and made me truly reconsider my own complacency in our racially divided society.
In this film, Raoul Peck captures Baldwin’s writings and taped speeches with absolute mastery. Samuel L. Jackson reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book on the state of race in America after the deaths of three key Civil Rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Peck juxtaposes the excerpts from Baldwin’s works with a sea of photographs and video clips from the past and present. In one moment, the camera closes up on an image of a black man hanging from a noose on a tree. The camera’s gaze quickly moves to the crowd of white men beside the tree, some observing passively, others moving their faces away from the scene in denial. It is one of many horrifying images throughout the film that forces us, as 21st century viewers, to recall racism and relate them to modern tensions. Peck crafts a visual narrative around Baldwin’s words with elegance and relevance.
I Am Not Your Negro looks at racial violence and discusses the ways in which our cultural media perpetuates xenophobic viewpoints. Peck includes clips of television shows and movies that display racist tendencies. In these cinematic snippets from the 60s and before, the racism is overt to our 2017 eyes. We see the lack of range for black actors versus their white counterparts and the racially segregated cinematic worlds. Yet, Peck takes Baldwin’s assertions on Hollywood and applies them to the modern era. He includes clips from contemporary television shows, in which sensationalist depictions of African American lives provide amusement to the masses.
Baldwin asserts that racism is a hidden beast lurking in the shadows of American life, a consistent issue that permeates the inner psyches of many white Americans. It is a notion that is supported by Ferguson, Baltimore and numerous other instances of police brutality against African Americans. Baldwin’s view on the state of affairs in the U.S. is at times bleak, at times hopeful. However, hearing his words in the wake of Trump and the return of white nationalism is all the more disturbing. According to Peck and Baldwin, we soothe ourselves with the guise of progress, but there is still a lot of grueling work that needs to be done to create a just America.
Baldwin emerges in the film as a complex figure, a wanderer and outsider in his society. Peck includes clips of Baldwin’s televised interviews alongside white intellectuals, as well as a speech that he gave at University of Cambridge to a crowd of white students. The students offered Baldwin a standing ovation after his speech, yet Baldwin did not appear phased or charmed by the effort. He recognized that despite his ability to truly capture the issues at hand through his words, despite his ability to gain the respect of the learned white population in the U.S. and abroad, he could not fully change the system around him.
In I Am Not Your Negro, slavery and racial injustice are not simply elements of African American history; they are important and relevant aspects of our collective past. As Baldwin so eloquently puts it, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
Anita Alur is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Millennial Musings appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.