I Am Not Your Negro (2017) by Raoul Peck
Review by Lydia Creech
Things feel like they come in threes. When the two scheduled showing of I Am Not Your Negro sold out, IU Cinema added a third, which also quickly sold out. 13th, OJ: Made in America, and I Am Not Your Negro form a trilogy of documentaries about racial tension in America. And I Am Not Your Negro tells the story of James Baldwin’s failed start to reckon with the murder of three of his friends and civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
Samuel Jackson reads Baldwin’s words over archival footage and photographs, from both the 60s and today. Police brutality in Birmingham is shown right next to the Rodney King video (also in OJ). It’s not a surprise that a line is drawn straight from Civil Rights to BLM (touched on in 13th). It’s all I can do not to just drop quote after quote of Baldwin succinctly cutting through lies that White America tells itself to feel better—about our lifestyles, our history, our stunning failures of empathy.
However, I don’t think Baldwin’s clear-sighted diagnosis of America’s so-called “race problem” is employed in a way to evoke white guilt (though, as a white person, if it makes you uncomfortable, it’s a great opportunity to ask yourself why). Rather, and why this documentary is so powerful, Baldwin’s words are his lived experience. We are directly told how he perceived and felt about the events of the 60s in Baldwin’s own words. I can’t stress enough how important it is that other voices be heard and listened to, especially in today’s political climate.
The effect of hearing Baldwin speak is quite different from the talking head documentary styles of 13th and OJ; whereas these two felt like they were tracing clear theses to inevitable conclusions (Andrew discusses this in his 13th review), I Am Not Your Negro feels more lyrical and associative. We see images of violence perpetrated against Civil Rights marchers; we hear Baldwin discuss the way the American Dream has been packaged and sold. Taken together, we can’t help but feel his scorn and come around to his side. Baldwin’s skill as a speaker lies in his power to force us to follow those implications and contradictions. He injects a great deal of personal feelings, social commentary, insight, compassion, and indictment in a way that feels entirely natural and easy, but as anyone who’s ever had to write a persuasive essay can tell you IS NOT AT ALL.
My favorite portions of the documentary are the clips where Baldwin appears on television shows or news broadcasts and we actually hear his voice and see the effect he has on people. Watching Dick Cavett’s eyes flit nervously feels vindicating, but then we watch a roomful of white people give Baldwin a standing ovation and maybe our reactions are being thrown back in our faces. Baldwin was certainly attuned to the absurdity his position of having to debate his very existence, and I think Peck is, too. On the podcast, I mentioned that I Am Not Your Negro ends with a clip and call to action from a PBS documentary. The whole James Baldwin section can be viewed here. This clip galvanized me to seek I Am Not Your Negro out, and I hope it sparks your attention, too. Once again, the best we can do is shut up and listen.