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FILM REVIEW I Am Not Your Negro
by Angelique Smith
2017-02-01

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"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."—James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro—nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and opening at the AMC River East Theater, 322 E. Illinois St., on Friday, Feb. 3—is based on 30 pages of the unfinished work Remember This House, by James Baldwin: acclaimed author, social critic and vastly-ahead-of-his-time intellectual.

A writer of many works, including the then controversial gay novel Giovanni's Room—which his agent suggested he burn—Baldwin wrote his literary agent in 1979 with the idea of telling his story of America through the lives, activism and assassinations of three of his friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

These three key figures in the civil-rights movement might have had different methods of dealing with white supremacy. In the film, Baldwin acknowledges that many of their philosophies overlapped later in life—unlike the public perceptions of militant Malcolm X, or the sanitized and the more harmless King, who was regularly used as a weapon against progress.

With Baldwin's personal insights and past work guiding the viewer's journey, we learn where he was when each of his friends was murdered, conveyed through eloquent words that barely conceal his helpless rage. We learn that he, like King and X, was considered a threat by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and subjected to surveillance and harassment. Baldwin was also labeled as a "pervert" by Hoover in his FBI file because of his sexuality. Compelled to escape the United States, Baldwin left to live and work in France, which freed him to be more open about race issues back home and his own sexual fluidity in a place he believed to be more welcoming to people of color. Returning to the States because he missed his people, he was a political voice and a self-described witness to the continued marginalization of African-Americans.

The movie, directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, juxtaposes Baldwin's words against the state of Black America during the movement and in the present through archival historical footage, interviews, photos and old Hollywood film clips. Baldwin's distinct voice really comes through in Samuel L. Jackson's narration, and even though Jackson sounds nothing like Baldwin's recognizably quick vocal clip, he effectively captures his unapologetic, calm defiance.

More about the nuances of the Black experience than it is biographical, I Am Not Your Negro does infuse bits of Baldwin's childhood that shaped his world view, including how early encouragement from a white teacher fostered his love of film and books. But as Baldwin matured, he found himself deconstructing dangerous racial stereotypes and reframing narratives to put the onus back on the oppressors, which can be seen throughout much of his work.

The viewer is also given personal stories of interactions with performers who fought for civil rights, like Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, culminating in a meeting between notable Black artists such Lorraine Hansberry ( author of A Raisin in the Sun ) and then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy in order to improve race relations. The failed meeting ended with all of them walking out on the tone-deaf Kennedy.

This film is a great introduction to those unfamiliar with Baldwin, aptly highlighting how much we still live in separate realities in this country. His examination of the world around him forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and think about who we truly are as a nation versus who we pretend to be. Baldwin was as equally terrified of moral apathy as he was of the jeering, snarling, yelling faces holding up confederate flags or racist, slur-filled signs.

Baldwin passionately wrote of white disbelief in the problem of systemic racism, while dispelling the notion that religion, feigned unity, respectability politics or capitalism would fix it. He understood that laws on paper don't change the hearts and minds of men. He understood that frank conversations were needed and that real progress only comes from discomfort. He understood that without tackling the inconvenient truths of the racist history of this country and how if informs the present, we will all fail.

In a time when "nationalism" is at the forefront of political discussion and this country's inhabitants still debate whether Nazis should be punched, in a time where current moderates think the same of the Black Lives Matter movement that past ones did of the marches and bus boycotts in the '50s, in a time where some in the LGBT community won't acknowledge its own racism or the contributions people of color have made to advance gay rights, this film shines a spotlight on the ugliness of yesteryear, which just so happens to look just like the ugliness of today.

Baldwin died in 1987, but there is not a word of his in I Am Not Your Negro that is not still disappointingly relevant. And it can be argued that the prescient Baldwin wouldn't be surprised enough to offer a resigned shrug.


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