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USA 2016
Directed by
Raoul Peck
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

I Am Not Your Negro

Synopsis: A portrait of the gay American novelist, playwright and essayist, James Baldwin and his fight for equal rights for black Americans.

Raoul Peck’s film about James Baldwin and the civil rights movement has been received rapturously in its homeland but it is not easy to see why. As I had a similar response to last year’s even more feted Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight (Peck’s film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar the same year but did not win) which was also about a gay, black man I assume that this a reflection of the present socio-cultural state of America, symptomatic of one hand an on-going racial divide and on the other, the inheritance of a generation of politically correct white liberalism.  Indicative of the latter point of view, A.O.Scott of the New York Times, for instance, calls the film “life-altering” but unless somehow he has managed to miss seeing the raft of fictional and non-fictional films that over the past three decades have dealt with Segregation and the Civil Rights movements from every available angle (to pluck a few examples out of the air, Mississippi Burning,1988, The Loving Story, 2011 and its dramatization in last year’s Loving), you’ve got to wonder what sort of a life he has led to make this film such a revelation.

It is somewhat misleading to describe Peck’s film as a documentary for it is not about either Baldwin or the Civil Rights movements as such. Rather it is a tribute to Baldwin’s deeply committed fight for justice for black people or, to put it more accurately, for justice in America.  Based on a 1979 letter that Baldwin wrote to his literary agent describing his next project, a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and a thirty pages manuscript he left at the time of his death in 1987, I Am Not Your Negro is a kind of filmic equivalent of the book to be.

Using only Baldwin’s writings, sonorously read in voice-over by Samuel L, Jackson, archival footage of Baldwin speaking in various interviews and forums, combined with news footage and still photographs together with some stylish inter-titles, Peck assembles a film which one feels does justice to Baldwin’s anger about and passionate desire to change black-white relations in America. 

There are references to race relations in modern day America but beyond a “what’s changed?” import it is not clear what Peck is trying to say by these allusions. Indeed the film ends with a series of shots of modern-day Afro-Americans silently staring at the camera. As they all look well-fed and well-dressed we might want to say “a lot” but this belief doesn’t chime well with Peck’s film which very much adheres to Baldwin’s pessimistic and one would have thought, now-dated, views from the 1960s. In those vexed times Baldwin was unable to imagine, for instance, that in forty years there could be a black American President. But that is exactly what did happen (even if it took fifty years). So keen is Baldwin to make his point about the oppression of black Americans that in relating how he heard about Malcolm X’s assassination he tells how his sister announced that “they’ve killed Malcolm”. The implication is, certainly within the context of Peck’s film if not in real life, is that Whitey did it when in fact it was black adherents of the Nation of Islam. Peck also frequently inserts segments from Hollywood films dealing with black-white relations (Baldwin seems to have been quite a film buff) but these are references are too superficial to have any real meaning and only serve to confirm the impression of tendentiousness on Peck's part.

Baldwin was a fiercely articulate speaker, his on-camera presence is palpably emotional, and the main point that he makes, that racism is not a Black problem but an American one, is telling but at least from our Antipodean cultural remove his voice seems to belong a bygone America and one longs to know how he would feel about his country today. To quote A.O.Scott again, this time on Baldwin: “At the end of the movie, you are convinced that you know him. And, more important, that he knows you”.  I can agree with the first part but the second part is pure fantasy.




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