In 1979, civil rights activist James Baldwin penned a letter to his agent giving a description of his next book, Remember This House. This book was to be epic and shake the ruckus of society, a personal opinion of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. When Baldwin died, he left behind thirty finished pages of his novel’s manuscript. Director Raoul Peck has spun the unfinished book into a documentary he thinks Baldwin would have told on the page. And in my view, director Peck has done well, even if it isn’t down to the letter of the source.
After my thread of Black Film/TV show-watches, including: Fire In Babylon, Marley, Luke Cage and Netflix’s The Get Down, I Am Not Your Negro is another delight, regardless of the topics it discussed. This is a documentary feature based upon the unfinished novel by James Baldwin, a text which details the essence of race relations in the United States. “The story of the negro in America is the story of America, it’s not a pretty story” says Baldwin, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained). Here, we are witness to three Civil Rights leaders who died before they were forty: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Throughout the film, there is lots of gut-wrenching yet honest imagery, and it wouldn’t surprise me if people suddenly got up and left. When the ugly truth is put on a platter, the reaction is often not pleasant. Having grown up knowing about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, James Baldwin is a new character for me. From this documentary, he is portrayed as an elegant speaker and like Orwell, a political poet. Where Orwell predicted the surveillance state, Baldwin predicted many of the racial issues we have today. America really hasn’t moved on that much, and this is depicted in I Am Not Your Negro.
X, Evers, King and Baldwin all wanted the same thing, equality of the Black. But they had different points of view to tackle the issue. They all spoke universal truths based on their perspectives from their different backgrounds and outlooks on the black experience, regardless on whether that is Memphis, The Bronx or Harlem. The Black Problem is the Black Problem, no matter if it North or South. It’s an American problem and Baldwin emphasises that a number of times. What they are united in is their ability to inspire people. They were four personalities who were imperative to the Black American cause.
This flick is going to disturb your soul, no matter if you’re black or white. It’s wrought with found footage from way back when, as well as newer footage of police on the streets from numerous BLM (Black Lives Matter) rallies commuting horrific acts against the demonstrators. There are clips of Clinton and Trump, so it’s impossible to put this down to black people “bringing up the past for attention” again. This film on race relations in America is as vital now as the civil rights marches were back in the 1950s and 1960s. It elaborates on the backstory of Ava DuVernay’s 13th and her film’s stance on the US mass incarceration of the black man.
Baldwin was a critic of cinema too. Much of this film includes him criticising the falsification of the black experience in American movies, often laying the hammer on clips, including the innocence of Doris Day put up against the black bodies swinging from trees. This doc gives them context and further paints a picture of the West’s denial of systematic racism against black people. Time and time again, the words spoken make the images used even more harrowing, creating feelings of sorrow in my gut. This should to be on everybody’s watchlist. It needs to be a case study for students that incorporate: history, politics, the arts and culture to name few.
Samuel L. Jackson’s voice as the leader is brilliant. They couldn’t have cast anyone better. Found footage of Baldwin in discussions is great to watch. He was a very animated talker and an engaging speaker. What else can I say? Go to watch this film whenever you get a chance because it’s one of those documentaries that is a work of art and a brilliant discussion of issues that hold a place in the ‘now’ as well.