One of the front runners in the Best Picture Oscar race this year was La La Land. It’s a movie some people condemned due to a racially charged element: white appropriation of jazz music, a historically black art form. The white central figure sees himself as a savior of jazz music, while the film simultaneously sidelines any black characters, and sanitizes jazz of its deeply African-American origins and past. Defenders of the movie belittle this critique as making the film about racism when it’s simply a sweet love story. The backlash against the argument that La La Land is racially troubling speaks to a central theme in the magnificent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. When a society is structured around one race’s superiority to all others, everything is about race. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve or willfully ignorant. The way the film illustrates this and many other points is elegant, eloquent, and unflinching.
I Am Not Your Negro is based on the words of one man: prolific writer and social critic James Baldwin. Toward the end of his life, Baldwin had started work on a manuscript for a book to be titled Remember This House. As the documentary tells us, the book would be a memoir centered around Baldwin’s ruminations on his friends Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He only completed 30 pages of the manuscript before he died in 1987. Most of the film uses passages from this work – narrated beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson – and archival footage of Baldwin. Director Raoul Peck weaves a fascinating story by exploring Baldwin’s thoughts on race in America. He examines the late writer’s belief that white folks’ refusal to deal with their racism damages not only people of color, but the very soul of the country as well.
What’s most disheartening about the film is that it reveals how little White America’s attitudes about race have changed over the last 50 years. Peck makes some of these connections directly. He juxtaposes Baldwin’s thoughts on the police being a tool for racial control with recent video footage and photographs of infamous cases of police brutality and murder.
Other connections are subtler. In an old TV interview clip, Baldwin describes how when a white man grabs a gun and shouts “Give me liberty, or give me death,” he is hailed as a patriot and hero. When a black man does the same thing, he’s portrayed as a criminal and dangerous. It calls to mind the “stand your ground” laws that made it okay for George Zimmerman to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin. Marissa Alexander, a black woman, fired a warning shot at her abusive husband when he attacked and threatened to kill her. She was put on trial for aggravated assault with a lethal weapon. When she invoked the same “stand your ground” law, she was convicted and received a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years in prison.
I Am Not Your Negro is far from being just an intellectual examination on race, though. The personal is political, as the saying goes, and Peck illustrates that sentiment by sketching Baldwin in very human terms. He was close to Evers, X, and King, and his personal reflections on each of their deaths are heartbreaking. Samuel L. Jackson solemnly intones Baldwin’s descriptions of his anticipation at seeing Medgar Evers’ children for the first time in many years. He takes hope in hearing that the children of King and Malcom X have become friends.
Baldwin’s words also offer radically different perspectives on American culture and society that might come as a surprise even to those who consider themselves ideologically and racially progressive. American movies were very influential on him as a child, so he had much to say about them. In particular, his observations on certain Sidney Poitier films, specifically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones, are biting and fly in the face of conventional wisdom. These are films that liberals hold up as shining examples of racial advancement, but Baldwin uses his own experiences as a black man in America to deflate them. The passages about these and other films, everything from Stagecoach to The Pajama Game, cement Baldwin’s legacy as a brilliant and insightful cultural critic of his time.
One of the documentary’s stand-out moments comes near the end. In another TV interview clip, Baldwin has just finished giving an eloquent treatise on race relations in America when the host, Dick Cavett, brings out the next guest, an older, white gentleman. Cavett asks the man if he agrees or disagrees with what Baldwin has just been talking about. The man then launches into a polite tirade about how he does not. Why, he asks Baldwin, does everything have to be about race? Isn’t that detrimental to all races finding unity, and advancing as one? Baldwin responds with an impassioned, forceful rebuttal. What he says works as a thesis statement for I Am Not Your Negro. Everything is about race, he suggests, because white people have made anything else impossible. Black people must live with the threat of death simply because of the color of their skin.
Another sequence in the film expands upon this. Over pictures of lynched black men hanging from trees, surrounded by smiling white men, women, and children, Jackson delivers Baldwin’s dire words. “I am not a nigger. I am a man. The only reason you call me a nigger is because you need one.” Racism is White America’s problem to solve and until we face the horrible truths of the past and present, nothing can change for the better in the future. I Am Not Your Negro, along with James Baldwin’s entire career, is a searing indictment on race in America. It’s vitally important that you see it, especially if you think you don’t need to.
Why it got 5 stars:
- I gave the documentary 13th 4.5 stars. It deals with a lot of similar themes and subjects, and as good as it is, it's essentially a talking heads-style documentary. I Am Not Your Negro's style is a step above, creating a lyrical, beautiful narrative feel. It's the perfect marriage of form and content. It's a film that needs to be studied in documentary classes for decades.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The director, Raoul Peck, is an interesting person in his own right. Aside from being a filmmaker and political activist, he also served as Haiti's Minister of Culture from March 1996 to September 1997, ultimately resigning in protest. I'm excited to delve into his other work, including the fiction film Lumumba, about the first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo.
- Preston Mitchum wrote a piece for Think Progress about how I Am Not Your Negro completely erases the sexuality of James Baldwin. I had a moment during my screening when I became cognizant of this. An oblique passage in the film left me wondering if he was gay, as the FBI crudely surmised in their file on the writer. It wasn't necessary to cover to convey the message Peck was trying to deliver, but it is necessary to give a complete picture of who James Baldwin was.
- I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, but lost out to O.J.: Made in America. When you consider those two films with another Best Documentary nominee, 13th, it seems like the Oscar Doc category has it's finger on the pulse of what's really important in our culture right now, in a way the Best Picture category doesn't (although Moonlight's nomination and win in that category is a major step in the right direction). After devouring FX's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I can't wait to dive into Made in America. I recently learned the director of the ESPN documentary spends three whole hours laying the groundwork for the racial tensions in L.A. preceding the murders and O.J.'s backstory. Should be a fascinating watch.