by Alan Yudman
American Nazis marching through streets. Black men and women being killed and denied their rights. It is amazing how much things have not changed in 40 years. That was just one thing I took away from Raoul Peck’s powerful and poignant documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.
It is based on the unfinished last book of James Baldwin. Baldwin was an author, playwright, poet and social commentator. He was also a confederate of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film is based on a book proposal and 30 pages of research and notes he had begun. “Remember This House” was meant to tell the story of three lions of the Civil Rights movements through first person eyes of Baldwin. It was supposed to be a memoir of his experience.
In the film, Peck weaves Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s writing and clips of Baldwin himself commenting on American society. It is chilling. It is an indictment of an American society that is too at ease with itself. That the American dream has always been false because it cannot be realized when certain classes of people are constantly denied their rights as human beings. Hollywood is also in for a takedown as Peck uses movie clips to illustrate Baldwin’s words about the image of African Americans. There are also clips of King and Malcom X talking about what type of resistance is appropriate. It is powerful and left me a little melancholy about how far we still have to go.
Peck also intersperses current images of victims of police shootings and the riots that followed in places like Ferguson, Missouri. He is trying to tie it all together and make the point that things are unchanged, that King’s vision of peaceful resistance will lead to a new normal. What you realize is that maybe Malcolm’s idea was the one that might lead to change. Because where are we now? Not much farther along than when Martin was killed in 1968. Sure, we have had a black President, a fact Peck ties up in a nice bow with a prediction in a clip from Baldwin that is hauntingly prescient. But black men are still being killed. Economic opportunity is still elusive. And with the political upheaval in this country in the past few months, it seems we are moving backward rather than forward. That seems to be the point Peck is trying to make here.
There were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. Sometimes the images were a distraction from Baldwin’s words. I found myself thinking more about the images than the narration. Also, if you are not totally familiar with the history of the 1960’s, you may want to bring a notebook to write stuff down for later research. Events are mentioned or glossed over without a lot of explanation or context.
Those minor complaints aside, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO makes a powerful statement about the state of race relations in this country. It is a statement everyone should hear.