Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”



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Posted March 17, 2017 by

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On James Baldwin

worldly but American
invested in humanity
precisely of his time
precise of our time
40 years later
reflection is not
to be ignored but
sought out
for understanding
is essential
and as it was
lacking in our nation’s
it is lacking now
knowing and admitting
to the world and
ourselves, our time, identity
is where the struggle
is rooted

James Baldwin’s words, whether written or spoken, resonated, and continue to do so today. In the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, his words, now decades old, are juxtaposed with images of recent race relations in this country, and they hit with a precision that is undeniable. This is a documentary that should be required viewing in our schools, as it proves the George Santayana quote “Those that don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.”

Based on letters Baldwin made planning the writing of a book he would die before penning, the film faithfully relies on his words, crediting him appropriately as the writer. Baldwin died in 1979, having intended to write a book focusing on three friends of his, all of whom had been assassinated within a few years of each other in the Civil Rights struggle, Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Interviews from various filmed sources including an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and debates conducted at Harvard, intertwine with voice-over readings, offering the artist/activist’s viewpoint as directly as possible. Though the voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson is aptly toned and takes nothing away from the film, though it is the actual video of Baldwin which holds the most powerful moments. His presence is simply undeniable. His ability to articulate his viewpoints is something that it seems our society lacks today, and his composure and manner empower his message.

A multitude of film clips ranging from the 1927’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to 1931’s “Dance, Fools Dance”, 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and 2003’s “Elephant”, either directly referenced or inferred, flesh out the themes of Baldwin’s life and work and his hopes, dreams and fears for our American society. Director Raoul Peck uses black, white and color to imbue images with inherent power, enhancing the message Baldwin advances. Contrast and acceptance, as well as the importance of the image, permeate the writing and reality the film presents. Baldwin’s writing was always an attempt to reflect the reality he saw in front of him, especially that reality which wasn’t reflected truthfully elsewhere. This film shows clearly that we still have to have a long look at ourselves in the mirror, and we have to accept the reality there in order to move forward as a society.




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