From The Ramparts
Junious Ricardo Stanton
I Am Not Your Negro
My wife and I went to see Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro. It was based upon James Baldwin’s writings and life experiences. It uses archival footage of Baldwin, pictures and footage of American history and Samuel L. Jackson’s voice reading and sharing some of Baldwin’s thoughts and writings to tell his story. It uses music, the Blues, and popular recordings to infuse the images with emotion and Baldwin’s perspective on racial politics in America. It is a powerful film. It helps the viewer realize history and “the past” are not distant, unrelated, abstract disconnected entities, but an integral, integrated and omnipresent part of our now. It demonstrates we cannot escape our past and America certainly cannot nor will never change unless and until we face our demons and make an honest effort to repent and be better.
The film is in limited distribution. In fact it is in only two theaters in the whole Philadelphia, tri-state area. It is not the kind of film the masses of Americans Black or white will go see. I can readily see why. The film, like James Baldwin is unnerving, it shatters our illusions and delusions about race in America. It is based on an uncompleted book Baldwin was writing prior to his death.
James Baldwin always made me uncomfortable, yet he influenced me greatly. He was uncompromising in his assessment of the American reality. He took no prisoners and didn’t give white America any wiggle room to escape their sins, their duplicity, lies and hypocrisy. His piercing eyes, his candor and vocabulary made him a champion for Negroes as we were called in the 1960’s when I became familiar with his work.
The film includes interviews of him on the Dick Cavett television program in the 1960’s, lectures at Cambridge and archival footage of American history, the history most Americans want to forget. I Am Not Your Negro weaves many threads using Baldwin’s words, pictures, Hollywood film clips and current events to tell Baldwin’s story as interpreted by Raoul Peck, which makes the film extraordinarily powerful. Under Peck’s direction the film examines the impact of three men on Baldwin’s life, their martyrdom and his relationship with them: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Baldwin knew all three and each had a profound impact on his life because as a writer he was intimately involved in the struggle against oppression. In the film Baldwin who was living in Paris as an expatriate determined to return to America and become engaged in the struggle because as he said, he could no longer be a spectator from afar.
But aside from Baldwin’s personal thoughts, insights and opinions, the film also reveals the connectivity between the past, slavery, American apartheid euphemistically called “Jim Crow” and today. Peck fuses pictures of Ferguson Missouri, Trayvon Martin and a host of other Blacks killed by police while using Baldwin’s words to juxtapose his personal defiance and optimism amidst the carnage and oppression of his day. Near the end of the film Baldwin questions the very need to create niggers and he says, “I am not a nigger, I’m a man”.
But the sad reality is, the theme of the film is apropos today, which is scary. During the film the audience sat in rapt attention. There was no talking, no nervous laughter just focused concentration. Every once in a while you could here someone murmur, “that’s right”, or “uh, uh uh”. When exiting the theater I observed hushed tones and expressions on people’s faces demonstrating they were in deep thought. This is what art is supposed to do.