I Am Not Your Negro: Embarrassing but essential insight into race in modern America
I Am Not Your Negro
93 mins, unrated (documentary)
"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story." So wrote author James Baldwin in 1979, in notes to his publisher initially intended to blossom into a book entitled Remember this House.
Incomplete and unpublished by the time of his death eight years later, the letters have been picked up by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck who brings Baldwin's typically insightful and beautifully articulated words to life with breath-taking power in this Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Samuel L Jackson. (Incidentally, the film lost to OJ: Made in America – another incisive, exhilarating documentary about differing perspectives on the Black and White experience in America. Both are essential viewing.)
The thing most notable and most damning is that Baldwin made this comment not in the aftermath of race riots in Ferguson, Missouri or following the murder of yet another black teenager by white police (events chronicled in the film) – but four decades ago.
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Peck uses Baldwin's brilliant social critique and eye-opening analysis to elucidate both a novel, exceedingly important way of looking at this timeless problem, and the relevance of Baldwin's reflections to contemporary America.
I Am Not Your Negro begins with the promise of a documentary poised to alert viewers to injustice and outrage, and initially I did wonder if I had seen this all before.
But in archive footage of Baldwin's lectures at Cambridge and in TV interviews, I was suddenly reminded of Atticus Finch's seminal advice that you never really understand someone until you have walked around in their shoes. Such realisations are illustrated by the film's damning interpretation of "well-meaning" statements which (seen by white people) may be construed as emancipating, whereas African Americans would feel the gall of being told they might just "maybe in 40 years' time, be President". There are fascinating breakdowns of key scenes in famous Black-White (that is, mixed-race) movies which make you realise it's the colour of your skin that determines your response to the idea that's being sold.
Baldwin's elegant prose is punctuated by his poignant recollections of the assassinations of three influential black men: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. But it is his broader analysis of perennial issues (the lack of any Black representation long before a child has a burgeoning appreciation of negative representation; the tension of how to stand up for something when you don't align completely to a particular cause's dogma) which make I Am Not Your Negro one of the most fascinating and illuminating films of recent years.
Essentially, what Baldwin highlights is the crucial issue of whose lens you see the world through – and how, for example, one (white) person's Supportive can come across as another's Subjugating. This is an embarrassing but essential insight, particularly relevant when you apply the same principal to modern-day New Zealand on the brink of an election dominated by social issues. I Am Not Your Negro is a film for Now as much as Then, and for Us as much as Them.