I Am Not Your Negro, a movie which cannot spell out its own true name, sanitizes itself for the sake of the MPAA and declares itself at once a film catered to a certain audience. And yet that is perhaps where the film’s greatest strength lies. Director Raoul Peck makes an impassioned plea through the words of the author James Baldwin and the pitch-perfect gravelly narration of Samuel L. Jackson for white America to introspect. As beautifully stark black and white title cards introduce and break up the film, the movie strives for accessibility while sounding an urgent alarm.
Peck largely takes a back seat to Baldwin, barely inserting anything more than footage and photographs to help accentuate Baldwin’s notes from his unfinished book, Remember This House. Most of the film and the work it’s sourced from is framed around Baldwin’s ode to future Americans, couched in his reflections on his friends Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. To my mind, this is one of two successful approaches to documentary: either curate from afar and let the subject tell their own story, or inject one’s own thesis by carefully shaping the film around personal views.
Peck opts for the former to the point where Baldwin is appropriately credited as the film’s writer. The director’s influence is only visible in what he almost completely leaves out: Baldwin’s considerable influence on the burgeoning LGBTQ rights movement. While this choice focuses the film, it also leaves an important dimension of Baldwin’s life on the cutting room floor. Omitting this aspect of an early champion of these causes creates I assume an inadvertent problem. Playing down Baldwin’s sexuality and commentary on the matter again makes invisible, and by that token continues to marginalize, LGBTQ black Americans.
I Am Not Your Negro is about James Baldwin’s dictum around race in American and the West more than it is about anyone or anything else. The lives, words and deaths of three key Civil Rights leaders — King, X and Evers — punctuate the film in an act of poetic symmetry but never overshadow Baldwin. We learn so little about these men that without any prior knowledge, I wouldn’t know anything more than that they were important figures in the fight for Civil Rights. This becomes a detriment as Medgar Evers, with whom I am less familiar, lives and dies narratively without much effect. I learned little about his role as a leader and I never felt he made a real contribution to Baldwin’s thesis of awakening the listener to the realities of American history and society.
The strength of the film is how Baldwin’s formal essay is made as an intellectual argument appealing to the “white moderate.” If you’ll remember, this was a demographic Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on with disappointment at their lack of moral courage. Peck and Baldwin’s interest in the white moderate is made clear by their frequent use of a debate at Cambridge University. There, Baldwin makes a vigorous and rousing monologue spread over the course of the film, concluding in a virtually all-white room standing in applause for his rhetorical acumen. This, it’s worth mentioning, comes to Baldwin’s visible surprise. Whether that support led to tangible action afterward is another question.
It strikes me that there is a similarity between the oppression of people of color in the United States and the flux and flow of cancer. A new tumor can be met with a litany of drugs and medicines to stave off its metastasis and, perhaps, see regression. Yet its return is often a more sinister malignancy which resists old modes of treatment, demanding a new approach to fully ameliorate the growth. For cancer biologists, this tug-of-war with tumorigenic relapse frequently appears futile by its very nature. So it is with our country’s torrid dalliance with genocide and imprisonment.
When enslaved people were freed in the 1860s, the white moderate wondered what else the African-American could want. What’s more than “liberation”? And when the black American earned basic fundamental rights in the face of segregation, the white moderate asked what else the African-American could want. What’s more than “legal protection”? And now, in the face of a broken criminal justice system extending from the very roots of black oppression in the United States, the white moderate asks again what the African-American is exactly fighting for.
Each time, the burden falls to the black American to make their case for basic human dignity. And each time, through force, demonstration or extraordinary means, white America finally falls back, inevitably without any consensus of understanding, ownership or even acknowledgement of what they got wrong. Worse, they sanitize their own past with fanciful imagination on the silver and television screens. To paraphrase Baldwin himself, they replace the massacre with legend in the form of Westerns and other media. This is Baldwin’s endless frustration: a fight for his own dignity and for that of his countrypeople which demands that “white apathy” discover and remove itself, because black America cannot keep fighting a tumor which never really goes away.
Baldwin makes so many brilliant points to this end that it would take, and I’m sure has taken, scholars and writers many more words than I’m allotted here to break them all down. Peck curates his endless archive of Baldwin footage well, however. No moderate party is left unaddressed in some form: the white Jewish American, the unions, politicians of liberal legend.
Every major left-wing ideological contingency which has historically imagined themselves agnostic or non-complicit in the crimes of other white partners is skewered by a fundamentally sound argument from Baldwin. My favorite moment comes when he takes on a white professor of philosophy from Yale who attempts to bond with Baldwin over scholarship and to put race aside. Baldwin immediately puts the professor’s idealistic notions to rest as he lays the reality of his day-to-day danger as a black man at his feet. The same argument comes up time and and again on social media, albeit without Baldwin’s considerable oratorical grace.
The great irony of I Am Not Your Negro is that it represents Baldwin, through Peck’s distant vision, still trying to wake up moderate white America three decades after his passing. It is once again a desperate cry from a disaffected black representative for basic human dignity, a fact echoed as scenes from Ferguson litter the film with the immediacy of Baldwin’s words. It’s repeated when Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin’s names glide across the screen, followed by so many others whose lives were taken by a system built to keep them down. For their loss and the seeming hopelessness of the country, it is bound to make you weep.
Though deeply affecting and technically acute, it’s not likely that I Am Not Your Negro will be the anti-tumor agent we need. As Baldwin’s final words state, it’s not up to black America, including Baldwin, Jackson and Peck, to fix a system hell bent on profit and power structures over people and humanity. It is on the power holders, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Dreamers, so-called white America, to figure out why they need a population over which to exert their alleged superiority and privilege. Only when the body recognizes cancer cells as malignant can we ever hope to permanently kill it.
Verdict: Movie Win