James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

The documentary I am Not Your Negro resurrects the exquisite humanity of author James Baldwin, as it deconstructs the history of racism in America. His pained perspective, as a self-declared witness of the civil rights era, strips bare the nation’s ugly history of slavery, segregation and the successive assassinations of America’s best black leaders:  Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. These three men were Baldwin’s close friends and all died within five years of each other. Drawing from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, the film describes these friendships and their loss from a personal perspective.

Directed by Haitian Raoul Peck, the film does not delve into details. Its factual scope is basic and familiar. However, it uses Baldwin’s written and spoken words to dissect the cultural complexity of race relations, particularly as it conscribes the black man. It relies heavily on archival newsreel footage, but also interweaves Hollywood’s treatment of race through the decades.  Movie clips range from 1950’s seal tight white Doris Day to interracial fare such as Imitation of Life (1934) and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), and express a bizarre dissonance in how race functions from various points of view.

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The film’s most radical contribution happens to be James Baldwin himself, who defies stereotype as a gay intellectual ex-patriot returning home to Harlem from the literary comforts of Paris. With stark clarity, Baldwin describes the psychology of racism and renounces it, without negating its tragic power.

I am not a nigger, I’m a man.  But if you think I’m a nigger, then it means you need it.  And you got to find out why.  And the future of the country depends on that.

James Baldwin also declared:

 The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

I am Not Your Negro is not simply a historical documentary, for the present bleeds into it.  Footage of recent events — Black Lives Matters protesters, police brutality, and violence in Ferguson, MO — are offered without comment. It leaves us viewers high and dry, uncomfortably awake. Awake to the reality that white supremacy now inhabits the White House, and to an unknown future fraught with racial unease.

See the trailer here.

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