Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
I Am Not Your Negro is so intellectually stimulating that it begs a reaction from audiences regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic background by the time the credits roll. It features the eloquent words of social critic James Baldwin's "Remember This House," an manuscript that was left incomplete when he died in 1987. It was going to be a piece contrasting the different approaches by Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X whilst intertwining Baldwin's personal perspective on race relations in America.
Whatever you come into I Am Not Your Negro knowing about the contentious race relations in the United States, the racist history of the country, or the so-called "untold history" of America, you might emerge either shaken or overwhelmed. I know I did. It wasn't that I Am Not Your Negro presented me with a great deal of new information, but it's so thoughtfully composed and richly articulated that the presentation winds up breeding a whole different level of enlightenment for audiences. Interjected in the film are clips from a variety of films, showing Hollywood's long (and continuing) desire to position white men and white America as the hero or savior in their films.
I Am Not Your Negro
Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Dick Cavett
3 February 2017
Steve's Grade: B+
Just this weekend, you have a film opening in American cinemas about medieval China taking place in medieval China starring Matt Damon as the main character.
I Am Not Your Negro is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, doing the most understated and nuanced Samuel L. Jackson in recent memory, as he reads Baldwin's incomplete work. Director Raoul Peck and editor Alexandra Strauss have more-or-less created a visual audiobook that runs clips from films like Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, and Norma Jewison's In the Heat of the Nightover Jackson's audio. It also features clips from modern TV shows, such as Jerry Springer and Deal or No Deal, as Baldwin highlights the tabloid trash that has commodified and caricatured the races, particular the African-American. They've successfully turned racial tinged conversations into hot-button, reactionary politics, where people are incapable of having a mature or thoughtful conversation without brazen theatrics.
Baldwin is shown infrequently, mostly on The Dick Cavett Show, where he calls out colorblindness and racial double-standards. Some of his most powerful claims come when a white man emerges from behind the scenes to state the disagreements he has with Baldwin's work, saying the usual quip many use when addressing race in America. There should be a colorblindness or an emphasis on character, for it's not about race. Baldwin keenly observes how mostly white people use this defense, the very same people that made everything about race when it came time to integrate schools, abolish colorism in public, and getting a decent chunk of real estate.
Baldwin is immensely polemical here, passionate and eloquent in the way he explains himself and his observations of the differences in approach Evers, King, and X used in hopes to gain equality for African Americans. He recalls where he was and how he reacted when he heard that each man had passed away, and, in particular, the mood and emotions he felt during Dr. King's funeral. He intimately recollects his fear to even shed a tear, for he believed if he started crying, he wouldn't be able to stop. Eventually, he broke down and Sammy Davis Jr. had to assist him up so he wouldn't trip while walking.
As expected, Baldwin's words are given new relevance as clips of Black Lives Matter protests in addition to montages of slain black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice are shown. Ava DeVurnay's 13th did a wonderful job at giving us a macro-look at both the mass-incarceration of African Americans in addition to police brutality. I Am Not Your Negro, on the flip-side, zeroes in on specifics and provides compelling insights from a brilliant mind and his rich life.
I Am Not Your Negro gives us a pretty conventional presentation, at its most successful when we see Baldwin on-screen or when his words are reaching climactic heights and revelations we've either not heard or never heard so well-articulated that we're now disgusted by them even more. But the information packed in this 95 minute documentary is hard-hitting and relevant now more than ever, well-articulated and complex, warranting multiple viewings or personal readings in order to fully gauge all of Baldwin's thoughts as they were intended. The film is a deeply depressing, but not hopeless, reiteration of America's troubling racial history all while doing a compelling job of showing where we've been, where we are, and where we are going.