I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. … So I’m forced to be an optimist.
Last night I had the pleasure of watching I Am Not Your Negro, the Academy Award nominated film for Best Documentary, about the prolific writer James Baldwin and his unfinished manuscript, called Remember This House. This incomplete work is about his view of America and centered around the death of his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medger Evers. I am glad I skipped the Academy Awards to see this film (though I am ecstatic that Moonlight rightly won Best Picture), because it offers a searing image of America from a unique viewpoint, one belonging to an ex-pat that would frequently join the Civil Rights movement, who spoke with an eloquence all to rare.
I Am Not Your Negro solely uses Baldwin’s own words to tell its story. It is not a typical documentary, for it does not rely on talking heads describing Baldwin and his personality. Instead, the film only uses the thirty page incomplete book, as read by an intensely focused Samuel L. Jackson, and old footage of Baldwin at debates, lectures, and television interviews to tell its story. The film also heavily relies on news footage and clips of old Hollywood films, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin and In the Heat of the Night. The director, Rauol Peck, paints a damning portrait of America and its history of racism and violence against its black citizens. It is a purely subjective documentary as it is told through the perspective of one man, who left America at a young age, but never became an outsider. The film focuses on Baldwin’s disgust and sadness at the loss of his friends, at the racism all too common in his country, but also about his hope for a better America, one that could outgrow its ignorance and allowance for such hatred.
James Baldwin is a fascinating man, highly regarded, but never as well known as his contemporaries Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. I admittedly didn’t know of his novels or his history of a praised debater until I first learnt of this documentary. Before I went my local theater to see this fine documentary, I watched many clips of Baldwin online, including his seminal debate at Cambridge University against William F. Buckley. I hung on every word Baldwin spoke, for he was so thoughtful, articulate, and captivating. Here was a man, who had a gift for words, not be afraid to criticize America, certain aspects of the Civil Rights movement, the abundant racism in the world, or himself. He was always reflective of that around him.
In one scene that stood out to me, Baldwin described the difference of how a white audience loved the bravery of showing an interracial couple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, while a black audience was mad that the film didn’t do enough, and that was eye opening to me. As a white American who grew up in a small town, predominantly populated by whites, I always viewed that film as highly progressive for the time, but I never thought to think what a different perspective would be. Or what a different perspective on race and class and life is like. Baldwin, through this documentary, gives a voice to that other perspective.
But the documentary as a whole is not perfect. Peck relies on juxtaposing horrifying imagery of recent racial atrocities, such as images of young African-Americans recently killed by police, the city of Ferguson, and the Watts riots, with Hollywood glamour and films showing the false prosperity of white America. Many of these juxtapositions are effective, shocking the audience to understand the naivety of so many Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. But sometimes the imagery of whites in the 50s and 60s was just confusing, or at odds with the brilliant words of Baldwin, as read beautifully and solemnly by Samuel L. Jackson. Another complaint would be that the film could have focused more on Baldwin’s relationship with King, Malcom X, and Evers. The film showed the beginning of their friendships and how he mourned the deaths of his close friends, but I felt like Peck could have shown more clips of him talking to King or put into better perspective the importance of Evers.
I Am Not Your Negro is an effective documentary that shines an important light on a man I previously knew nothing about. It shined a light on the role Baldwin played in the Civil Rights Movement, such as his meeting with Robert Kennedy, and his friendship with its leaders. The documentary informed me of particular details of the era I never learned before. And Baldwin, as a writer and a speaker was marvelous to listen to. His words landed deep in my heart, and this film focused on this one singular perspective, of a black, gay American, living abroad, and viewing the atrocities abroad. He spoke of this ugly side of America with intelligence, grace, optimism, disgust, and hope. It is a unique experience to see a different perspective of the world around you. As much as you may think you understand, there is always a different perspective that should be felt, a different voice to be heard. Baldwin should be heard, and I’m glad I Am Not Your Negro keeps Baldwin’s words and perspective alive.