ARTS + CULTURE
Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race
18th September 2020
Raoul Peck’s documentary is a political statement and looks deep into the mind of James Baldwin. It is a thought-provoking and cinematic biography with a mission; a mission to show America through the eyes of an African-American with scattered shreds of hope, horror and disgust.
“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals. I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”
– James Baldwin, I am not your Negro
Race is part of our history. Our present, our past and most certainly our future. “I am not your Negro”, is a documentary that makes you rethink race. It pinpoints the Hollywood stereotypes and police brutality as Baldwin in his compelling analysis, describes a “mirror stage” culture that Black people went through in 20th century America. As kids, they would gleefully cheer and identify with the white heroes and heroines of Hollywood culture; then they would see themselves in the mirror and realise they were different from the white stars and in fact weren’t different from the baddies and “Indians” they’d been booing.
The documentary is mainly built around the unfinished manuscript that was intended to be a personal recollection of Baldwin’s friends, the civil- rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr who were all assassinated within five years of each other. The voice-over narration by Samuel L. Jackson may be one of the best performances in his career. If you are looking to better understand Baldwin himself through this masterpiece, then you will be pleasantly surprised because this film shies away from it. This genius move by the filmmaker allows viewers to appreciate Baldwin’s powerful eloquence. The audience thus is able to form a portrait of the man behind through his own words. However, the documentary omits a very crucial aspect of his work and life: his sexuality. During the 60s liberals and radicals mocked Baldwin alike for his sexuality. President John.F.Kennedy and others referred to him disparagingly as “Martin Luther Queen” and Eldridge Cleaver, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, wrote in his memoir Soul on Ice: “The case of James Baldwin aside for a moment, it seems that many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.”
The archival footage which is culled from Baldwin’s university speeches and his television appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, demonstrate to the audience the man himself in his usual piercing fire. The clips beautifully edited by Alexandra Strauss rightly showcases the contrast of the horrific past, and the evil present thus illustrates the urgency of Baldwin’s words even today. The protests that have engulfed the social media and the cries for justice seem like a distant call from the past, for example, the 1960’s scenes of police brutality in the South against clips of Rodney King and the tragedy of Ferguson. Peck is also astute in using Baldwin’s words about pop culture and the Hollywood liberal dilemma especially through films such as The Defiant Ones, Dance, Fools, Dance, Imitation of Life and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Baldwin through his words shows how racism was wired into the most seemingly liberal pieties. He believed Hollywood of stereotyping black menace and subservience as foils for purity and innocence. This documentary also, therefore, becomes a commentary on Hollywood that reaped profits banking on racial stereotypes and on perpetuating a fiction of America as a pioneer for democracy, freedom and ultimately the perfect American dream for ‘all’. I am not your Negro is an astounding statement on race that continues to resonate today and is a must-watch.
You can watch the trailer below:
Featured photo by Sedat Pakay