Movie Review: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Ben Miles

James Baldwin was a 20th century profile in courage. Black, bold and out (before out was in) as a gay man. He was a prolific essayist, novelist, playwright and poet. But the wordsmithing was in-service to a higher goal: civil rights and social activism.

Raul Peck’s documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro” is unique not only because of its Oscar nomination as Best Documentary of 2016, but because it departs from the typical documentary format featuring myriad talking heads. Samuel L. Jackson movingly reads the profound words of Baldwin, thus allowing Baldwin to tell his own story and along with it the story of an epical period in American history.

In a packed-full one hour and 33 minutes, through vintage photos and film clips we see Baldwin’s America. So stark are the images of this mid-century America that we easily empathize with Baldwin choosing expatriation in 1968, at age 24, over remaining in a nation where exercising basic civil liberties was not only a struggle, but a life-threatening danger.

Yet at a certain point of political and social dysfunction in the United States, Baldwin felt compelled to return to his native land, though he was sadly a stranger in a strange and racist land. Baldwin knew and wrote and spoke eloquently about civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – each assassinated in the pursuit of social justice and equal rights.

Baldwin knew and befriended the likes of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando and was a regular on television talk shows such as the Dick Cavett Show. In one appearance on the Cavett show Baldwin engages in a heated discussion with Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. The professor criticizes Baldwin for his intense focus on race. How Baldwin takes Weiss to task for his obtuseness on the matter is a highlight of the film and an insight into the raw genius of James Baldwin.

In another of the film’s clips, we see Baldwin addressing students at a British university. He appears exhausted and put upon to once again have to articulate his point of view and to explicate his birth country and its long history of racial injustice and sorry trespasses.  He seems genuinely surprised and, perhaps, even slightly annoyed when the students rise to give a standing ovation to him subsequent to his talk.

As another American author, William Faulkner, wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Director Peck juxtaposes the racist heresies of the past with present day social eruptions such as those in Ferguson, Missouri and with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, et. al. It is a powerful call to justice, and proof that James Baldwin’s words carry prophecy.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is in theaters now. Check local listings.



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