If you were my student, I’d require you right away to see the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017). This is one of the most urgent and timely films I have seen. Using James Baldwin’s writings, “I Am Not Your Negro” guides us through black history in the United States and bridges the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter and to what’s happening today. This is an illuminating – electrifying and imperative work that needs to be seen immediately. James Baldwin – who died in 1987 – speaks to us and his words are prophetic as well as informatory. It dares to ask questions and challenge us in a way I find necessary. Filmmaker Raoul Peck uses this text and brings to it vivid cinematic energy – lyrically juxtaposing it with current events and archival footage. Samuel L. Jackson passionately reads the scribe’s words.
Baldwin – the activist and author of “Go Tell It on The Mountain,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “The Fire Next Time” – left an unfinished manuscript of only 30 pages entitled “Remember This House.” The book was supposed to be a first-person chronicle of the lives and sequential murders of three of his close friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Moments after moments in this documentary will stun you because of its currency. Baldwin speaks of a meeting he was part of with author Lorraine Hansberry and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as an attempt to improve race relations. “But I’m very worried, she said, about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that negro woman’s neck in Birmingham,” Baldwin recalls.
The documentary is divided in sections which I’m assuming were the chapters in Baldwin’s manuscript. The most compelling of them is “Heroes.” In it he theorizes that as a kid he was introduced to movies – like westerns starring John Wayne – where the heroes were all always white — and killing Native Americans. Black people were trained to applaud and relate to white heroes and at some point he saw himself in the mirror and understood his skin color was that of the villains portrayed in the movies. “Uncle Tom was not a hero for me,” he says. “Heroes were white. Vengeance were in their hands to take. We made a legend of massacre and oppression. The country has not evolved a placed for you.”
This incredible documentary works as a history lesson as well as psychological analysis of our culture and how racism has divided us and continues to do so. Baldwin is critical, polemical, angry and often-challenging – but we understand that he wants to incite change and not hopelessness.
I implore you to see “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Baldwin: “But the Negro in this country… the future of the Negro in this country… is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and not representatives. It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger they have maligned so long.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes and Google Play.
Written by Raoul Peck and based on the writings by James Baldwin
Directed by Raoul Peck
About Director Raoul Peck
“Raoul Peck is a director, screenwriter and producer. Born in Haiti, raised in the Congo, U.S., France and Germany, Peck earned an economic-engineering master’s degree at the University of Berlin and then studied film at the Academy of Cinema and Television in Berlin (DFFB). In 1995, he created the Foundation Forum Eldorado, which focuses on cultural development in Haiti. He served as Haiti’s Minister of Culture from 1996 to 1997, after two years as a professor for screenwriting and directing at NYU Tish school of the Arts graduate program. In 2010 he was appointed Chairman of La Fémis in Paris, the prestigious French national film school. In 2001, the Human Rights Watch Organization awarded him with the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award. Peck established Velvet Film in 1989, which is now operating in the U.S., France and Haiti, and through which he has produced or co-produced all of his films. He served as jury member at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, as well as jury member at the Berlinale in 2002, as well as Sundance and Tribeca. He is one of the most significant and prolific filmmakers of our time, richly rewarded for his historical, political and artistic work. His complex body of work includes such films as The Man by the Shore (Competition, Cannes 1993); Lumumba (Director’s Fortnight, Cannes 2000, HBO); He produced and directed Sometimes in April for HBO on the genocide in Rwanda (Competition, Berlinale 2005); Moloch Tropical (Toronto and Berlin) and The Young Karl Marx(Berlinale 2017). His documentary films include: Lumumba, Death of a Prophet; Fatal Assistance (Berlinale and Hot Docs 2013). His latest documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards and has won the Audience Award at both the Toronto and Berlin International Film Festivals, LA film critics best documentary award, the Best Documentary at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) (U.K.) and the French national film award the César, among many others.” (Velvet Film) Peck directed and co-wrote the 2017 film, The Young Karl Marx.
About James Baldwin
James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York. Baldwin was the oldest of nine children, and because he was usually responsible for the care of his younger siblings, he could often be found with a baby in one hand and a book in the other. Raised by his preacher stepfather in an atmosphere of fear and religious fanaticism, Baldwin joined the Holy Rollers and was delighted when his preaching drew larger crowds than his stepfather. He preached for 3 years until “his faith was gone.” After high school Baldwin worked many odd jobs to help support his family, and wrote in the evenings. When his father died in 1943 he pursued writing full time, made possible after he met the author Richard Wright and received a writing fellowship. He moved to Paris after receiving another fellowship, and there he wrote his first three books.
Considered “one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works.” His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1952, is autobiographical, and deals primarily with his youth. He visited the South for the first time around 1957, and became interested in the civil rights movement. In 1963 there was a noted change in Baldwin’s work with The Fire Next Time. This collection of essays was meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be black. It also offered white readers a view of themselves through the eyes of the African-American community. In the work, Baldwin offered a brutally realistic picture of race relations, but he remained hopeful about possible improvements. ‘If we…do not falter in our duty now, we may be able…to end the racial nightmare.’ His words struck a chord with the American people, and The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies.” “That same year, Baldwin was feature on the cover of Time magazine. ‘There is not another writer—white or black—who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South,’ Time said in the feature.
He was criticized for being a pacifist, but considered Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X friends. After their assassinations he returned to France where he wrote If Beale Street Could Talk in which he was accused of bitterness, “but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood.”(mesaartscenter.com)
Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. Never wanting to be a spokesperson or a leader, Baldwin saw his personal mission as bearing “witness to the truth.” He accomplished this mission through his extensive, rapturous literary legacy. (biography.com)