I Am Not Your Negro
(Rating: PG-13 – Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min. – Genre: Documentary – Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin)
Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary is based on Remember This House, an unfinished novel by James Baldwin about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers. It is an intense and unapologetic look at the history of race relations in the United States.
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The charm–and inherent potency–of the film lies in the fact that it has viewers staring down the proverbial “barrel of a gun” for the entirety of the picture. It is informative, thought-provoking, and compelling—but it is neither sugar-coated or intentionally comfortable. The history of race relations in the United States is examined unflinchingly from James Baldwin’s elegantly prescient, yet outraged point of view.
Baldwin’s words, as voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, belie his weariness and anger at a country that has treated his people so criminally. Jackson’s rich, metered delivery provides punctuation to the often disturbing or inflammatory images that appear on the screen.
One powerful illustrator throughout the picture is the use of film clips to elucidate the country’s attitude toward race throughout the decades. Baldwin says that he felt lied to about the world he knew based on the cartoonish and insulting portrayal of black characters on the silver screen of his youth. The oafish stereotype played by Mantan Moreland is contrasted to iconic “hero” John Wayne, who, in turn, is compared to the talented but unthreatening Sidney Poitier, to show the limitations shackled upon portrayals of African-Americans.
The film doesn’t shy away from examining the tension in the Civil Rights Movement itself. The footage of Malcolm X calling out Martin Luther King for essentially not being confrontational enough to persecutors is just as prickly now as it was 50+ years ago.
Some of the strongest moments feature Baldwin himself, speaking his own words. Culled from an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin’s passionate indignance is palpable. He perceptibly quivers as makes his case to a divided nation.
I Am Not Your Negro is informative, eye-opening, and unabashedly unrepentant about its politics. While the source material was written decades before the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement, or, hell, before Donald Trump was a twinkle in the eyes of a segment of voters, it feels incredibly modern and of the moment. It is also optimistic in a manner that only those who have known true sorrow and oppression may be. Both insolent and angry, James Baldwin reaches through time in an attempt to open the eyes and hearts of a new generation of people.
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