I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by: Raoul Peck.
Written by: James Baldwin.
Featuring: Samuel L. Jackson.
Had he wanted to, director Raoul Peck could have easily made a wonderfully entertaining, more traditional documentary about the life of author James Baldwin. As glimpsed in I Am Not Your Negro, there is wonderful footage of Baldwin giving speeches, on various TV talk shows, etc. – in which Baldwin is always the smartest guy in the room, the most eloquent, the best speaker and the most persuasive. That documentary may well be very good – and hell, if someone makes it one day, I’ll gladly watch it. But that isn’t really what Peck is doing in I Am Not Your Negro – his brilliant documentary. Yes, he does use some of that more traditional footage (and whenever Baldwin speaks on screen, it is mesmerizing) – but we really do not get any biographical information on Baldwin at all. Instead, it takes his last, unfinished novel as its focus – a novel that was supposed to hinge on the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King – three men Baldwin knew personally. In focusing on that novel, what I Am Not Your Negro really focuses on is Baldwin’s work – and how it relates to America, very specifically in Baldwin’s time – and by extension, today. That’s a tougher trick – and it’s what makes I Am Not Your Negro something special.
The film doesn’t limit itself to that one novel by Baldwin though – and that’s also smart. The narration is by Samuel L. Jackson – arguably giving his best, or at least, his least bombastic, performance in years reading lots of what Baldwin wrote. Baldwin’s observation on film are particularly nuanced and brilliant – giving us a different view of the legacies of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Doris Day and Sidney Poitier than we usually get – and digging up some of the shameful, racist caricatures of the earliest black performers had to perform – and how all of that shapes a young, black child like Baldwin. How does he see his country – when he realizes how his country sees him? When he realizes that he isn’t John Wayne or Gary Cooper – he’s the Native Americans they slaughter? Why are men like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte – obvious sex symbols, treated as asexual on screen – and why does Poitier always seem like he has to sacrifice himself for some white people?
The title of the movie really could be said to be the thesis of the film. Baldwin, believes that America will never truly move forward in terms of race relations until they deal with their past. As he says in the film – he is not a “nigger” and if white people made him one, they need to ask themselves why they did so – and if they don’t, America will never move forward. That was true when Baldwin said it – and it’s true all these years later as well. America doesn’t like to deal with their past – they don’t like to deal with their history with the Native Americans, they don’t like to deal with the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow.