I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenwriter: Raoul Peck, from the words of James Baldwin
Samuel L. Jackson (narration)
Martin Luther King Jr.
Runtime: 93 mins.
Australian release date: 14 September 2017
Previewed at: The Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre, Sydney on 12 June 2017
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America – and it’s not a pretty story.”
This is the premise of Raoul Peck’s powerful political essay, although the words are those of famed African-American author James Baldwin. The Oscar-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro is a stunning work, a form of cinematic poetry the like of which we haven’t seen before. Using archival footage, stills, TV interviews from the past and the present, and clips from Hollywood movies, the Haitian director has expanded on a 30-page treatment that Baldwin sent to his publisher outlining his next project. It was to be an examination and analysis of the lives and works of three assassinated leaders of the civil rights movement in the USA: Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, in the same quiet, softly-spoken tones Baldwin used, the documentary combines the author’s words with images from the civil rights marches of the 1960s through to today’s Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin was regularly interviewed for television after returning to the States in 1957 from his nine-year self-imposed exile in Paris. He was moved to return after seeing an image of a 15-year-old African-American girl being mobbed and spat upon as she walked to her first day of school at a desegregated college in Charlotte, North Carolina. As he states in I Am Not Your Negro, it “was time to pay his dues.” Where he’s not filmed relaying his opinions to camera, Jackson reads the author’s words taken from his writings - and what words they are. His quiet delivery belies the anger and rage the writer felt about race relations, in not just the South but across all the United States, but his impassioned eloquence reveals the truth of the matter.
In a case of action speaking louder than words, Baldwin opines that he formed his judgements not from what White America was saying, especially when it spoke of positive progress in matters of race, but from its deeds, and it’s an argument that’s hard to refute. Peck backs up Baldwin by the multiple use of movie clips from films like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Raisin In The Sun, The Defiant Ones, Imitation Of Life and even King Kong and Stagecoach, and this makes his theories abundantly clear. The director, who compiled and edited all the footage of Baldwin speaking (the main editing credit belongs to Alexandra Strauss), has said, “Today James Baldwin’s words still catch us unprepared and with the same violent truth. An irrefutable uppercut. A body blow.” The really terrible thing about those words is that they are still so pertinent; think of President Trump's equivocation about the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville recently.
As John Donne wrote in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions in 1624, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Replace Europe with the USA and you’ve got a summary of James Baldwin’s argument in I Am Not Your Negro; as long as Black Americans are kept down, America cannot rise to its promise.