Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro
Dir. Raoul Peck
Such is the power of this extraordinary feature it would still work if the screen were blank and the voiceover the sole protagonist. Samuel L. Jackson’s reading of excerpts from Remember This House, James Baldwin’s unfinished yet illuminating analysis of race relations in America is so heavily freighted with significance, the language such an epiphany, that at times it is more effective to shut down all visual senses and let the words lodge as deeply as possible into your consciousness. When Baldwin pulls back the veil on the crippling paranoia, fear and self-hatred in which white America is housed, shaking the foundations of its need to oppress black America, the truths boldly assail the ear as much as they get right in your face.
Baldwin, a literary colossus who was deeply involved in Civil Rights, set out to tell the story of the movement through potted biographies of a holy trinity of slain leaders – Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X – and the footage of their lives as well as the writer’s own recollections of them as individuals forms the centerpiece of the work. To all intents and purposes this is a documentary, but Peck’s careful montage of historical and contemporary images, a segue from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, set to the recurrent theme of police brutality and institutional racism, makes it much more. The strong narrative creates an action-packed mixtape with a steady rhythm of assaults on dehumanization and delusion, particularly when Baldwin fearlessly calls out both moral and political establishments and the cutthroat captains of rabid capitalism, right down to Chase Manhattan Bank, in his utterly compelling, if not magnetic appearances on the small screen. His own one-man revolution had to be televised.
Furthermore, he places the ‘Negro problem’ within the wider context of the massacre of Native Americans, and the grotesque mythology of white heroism as embodied by the likes of John Wayne, the valiant gun-toting scourge of those pesky injuns. All of which shows the depth of fantasy thinking that has afflicted the land of the free and the home of the brave since its genesis. Baldwin was not your Negro, and he fully understood that ‘massas’ invented ‘nigguhs’ to assuage their venality as well as twisted fears on the possibility of ‘race mixing’ and some kind of evil contamination of what was a supposedly superior gene pool.
From the brick hard stereotypes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the batons raining down on the back of Rodney King, the injustices suffered by people of colour in America are detailed quite forensically. And they are all imbued with real meaning by the great lucidity’s of Baldwin’s commentary, which was of the ‘50s and far ahead of it. To a certain extent the world has yet to catch him up, and it would do well to pay attention to this movie if it wants to get with the programme for the good of all, whether they are black or white, or black and white.
Understandably, this all makes for very sobering viewing, especially when pictures of Trayvon et al come into the frame, but Baldwin’s recognition of the unbreakable resistance of black music, so emphatically captured in timeless clips of Ray Charles, also reminds us that life is a song worth singing as well as a battle worth fighting.
Kevin Le Gendre
Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro