James Baldwin in known to be one of the greatest writers and intellectuals of the 20th century. His writings and critiques on race in America have been established in a class of their own. His language brings eloquence and grace to an otherwise grotesque and deplorable situation. The recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro tries to bring this contrasting relationship to the big screen.
I Am Not Your Negro already proves to be a provocative title and certainly the film itself was able to match the intensity of its name. In only 95 minutes filmmaker Raoul Peck does a masterful job in bringing life and visualizations to James Baldwin’s poetic words. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the film exclusively using words from Baldwin’s unfinished 30-page manuscript Remember This House. In this manuscript Baldwin examines racism in America through the lives and deaths of three of his close friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X.
Baldwin does not simply regurgitate the biographies of these three civil rights leaders. Instead he takes a more profound approach where he analyzes how the lives of these three men molded Baldwin’s own view of race, and how their deaths were emblematic of the hypocrisy and incongruous nature of race relations in America. Throughout the film he tries to expose America’s juxtaposition between blacks and whites through the ideas of power, privilege, oppression, and ultimately “the story of the Negro in America.”
Even though James Baldwin’s voice radiates throughout the whole film, Raoul Peck makes Baldwin’s voice come alive through the use of powerful and relevant images from an arsenal of cultural and historical sources. From excerpts of Sidney Poitier movies to newsreels of police officers crushing batons upon the skulls of black people in the 60’s, Baldwin’s words always correspond to the image.
Peck does not limit his visualizations to Baldwin’s era. He keeps the audience conscious of the vitality of Baldwin’s words and of racism in America by exhibiting images of police protests in Ferguson, along wit the haunting faces of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray. The use of these contemporary images as a backdrop to Baldwin prophetic voice ignites the audience to remember race as a continuing struggle, not some archaic sin that has subsided with the significant, but mostly isolated, victories of blacks in America.
Regardless of those who were familiar with James Baldwin or those who were not, the effect of I Am Not Your Negro remains the same. It is a thought provoking piece of work that will have the audience questioning their own role and complacency in race relations in America. It further cements James Baldwin’s artistry to a realm of landmark political literature in ways that only history can do so. The audience will leave the theater understanding the genius of James Baldwin, while also more aware of how racial history has transcended itself into the present along with Baldwin’s words.
Miles Liu is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org