I Am Not Your Negro Written by: James Baldwin Directed By: Raoul Peck Reviewed by: Melissa Yunk and Rachel Bennett
Raoul Peck took what was going to be James Baldwin’s next literary project and turned it into an extremely insightful and relevant documentary. I Am Not Your Negro received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and has been critically acclaimed for its aesthetically appealing and insightful delivery. Baldwin, the writer, scholar and social critic, passed away in 1987 and at the time had around 30 pages of his manuscript completed.
The entirety of the narration is the original words of James Baldwin, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson. The visual elements are an assortment of archived material from reconstruction to Civil Rights era to now. There is also footage from Baldwin’s lectures and interviews sprinkled throughout the film to add authenticity to the narrative.
Peck gave viewers a window into one, extremely impactful, man’s experience of growing up black in the United States, specifically around the time of the Civil Rights Movement. However, to say this was solely a film about James Baldwin would be a huge understatement. This documentary follows Baldwin throughout the three assassinations of his close friends and civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Part of what makes this film so compelling is its ability to connect Baldwin’s criticisms of the United States from the past to the problems we are facing currently. By juxtaposing images of violence in Selma and images of recent instances of police brutality, Peck is making a statement about how little has changed. Explicitly, this film is a comparison of Evers’, Malcolm X’s, King’s and Baldwin’s experiences and positions on race in the United States. Implicitly, it is so much more. This film offers a critical perspective that many of its white viewers may not have encountered before while also attempting to be as representative as possible of black experience.
The only thing this documentary did not take into account was Baldwin’s analyses of sexuality and other intersecting identities found in the majority of his scholarship. Whether this was a conscious choice or not, it would have been interesting to see those conversations interweaved without subtracting from the conversation around race.
Overall, this was not an easy or lighthearted movie to watch by any means. However, I was able to take away more from this 90 minutes film than I have from any American History course I have had in the past. I Am Not Your Negro and more can be seen at Liberty Hall.