How does one begin to interpret a legacy as great as James Baldwin’s? Or a legacy as unsettling as the roots of this so-called “great country?” Themes of race, class, sexuality and America, itself, are not the easiest to digest. But the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” comes fairly close.
Director Raoul Peck treads past Baldwin’s more prolific, narrative efforts, like the queer drama “Giovanni’s Room” and the Harlem romance “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and charges straight for an adaptation of his unfinished memoir “Remember This House.” Here, Peck completes the writer’s 30-page manuscript with the timelines of black revolutionists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and in doing so, creates a multimedia essay on institutional racism in America, the quartet of black excellence that tried to stop it and the progress that almost feels lost in today’s political heatwave.
“Why aren’t the negroes optimistic,” television personality Dick Cavett asks Baldwin at the film’s beginning. “It’s getting so much better. There are negro mayors, negroes in all of sports, negroes in politics … ”
The next 90 minutes work to answer Cavett’s question, exploring an index of unsettling parallels between yesterday and today –– caricatura portrayals of black bodies in Hollywood films like “The Monster Walks;” the protests that disparaged the cities of Ferguson, Oakland and Watts; Dorothy Count’s hostile admission into an all-white high school; and the contemporary deaths of black youth like Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott.
Donald Glover warns that “this is America” in his 2018 song of the same name, but Baldwin calls it “the formula for a nation, a kingdom in decline.” His writing heard throughout the film, exhumed through the narration of Samuel L. Jackson, asks any and every viewer to consider the story of “the negro” as the story of America, pleads for an answer and then for a change.
“Everyone else had paid their dues,” Baldwin says in regards to the work of Evers, X and King. “It was about time I paid mine.”
Well Mr. Baldwin, you did just that across both the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Liberation Movement. This sentiment of dues and duties is something that every viewer can take away from “I Am Not Your Negro.” In the spirit of the radical novelist and social critic, we can all lend a hand in the current movement toward equality by elevating the voices of the disenfranchised through allyship or holding our own communities accountable for negligence, like Baldwin did with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Panther Party (BPP).
This film should be seen and heard in institutions around America today, along with the like minded companion pieces “13th” and “OJ: Made in America,” because the real horror is not seeing our past, but rather seeing how it pervades in our schools, streets, criminal justice systems, workplaces and even the Academy Awards, today.
So how does one begin to interpret and shift this narrative that has plagued our nation for centuries? I suggest you watch the film and find out for yourself because as Baldwin once wrote, “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” And do we need justice more than ever to prevent history from repeating itself.