I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Director: Raoul Peck
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 12/9/16 (limited); 2/3/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 2, 2017
Director Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is a thoughtful, hypnotic examination of race relations in the United States. The documentary is told from the perspective of author James Baldwin, whose actual voice and countenance are present here in footage of public debates and talk show appearances. The foundation of the film, though, is an unfinished manuscript that he abandoned after a few dozen pages of notes. The book was to be titled Remember This House. It would be a memoir in which his life would be framed through his experiences with three leaders of the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's easy to understand why Baldwin would abandon the work (It led to the publishing house posthumously suing the writer's estate to recover a sizeable advance for the book). The task was monumental, even in containing it to a story of his own life. The philosophies of the three men were so different, although they all had the same goal—even if it took Malcolm X a little longer to see it.
Baldwin was older than all three, but despite his role as an elder statesman within the movement, he saw these three men as icons and heroes. None of the trio reached the age of 40. They were all murdered by people who opposed them. Malcolm X, of course, was betrayed by people within an organization that he called his own for so long. Let's not forget that Evers and King were betrayed, too—by a country that, with its founding document, announced all men were equal.
It's a betrayal as old as the nation and is still as pernicious as it was then. That means it's also appropriate that Baldwin's book remained unfinished. This story is still being told.
Peck is keenly aware of this fact. The film combines archival footage and photographs throughout the decades, movie clips, and modern-day footage of the United States. There are times when it's difficult to tell if a photo—of protesters and police and violence—is of the past or from recent times. This is probably intentional.
At times, Baldwin's text, as read by a weary Samuel L. Jackson, sounds prophetic. Modern footage of New York Times plays over Baldwin's description, and while the ads and merchandise have changed, he is still basically describing the same place—representing the same cultural values.
Eventually, the realization hits. He was speaking of his time—of segregation and restricted voting access and police brutality and violence and systemic, if not systematic, oppression. If it sounds as if he is predicting the future, then the future has failed him. It has failed Evers. It has failed Malcolm X. It has failed King.
Peck's film serves as an indictment: America has failed itself. It has failed as a society of equal rights and protection under the law, and it has failed in its cultural promise of a melting pot. It's the oldest story of the country, and its telling continues—with every unarmed black person who is shot by the police, with every protest, with every stereotype that we see on TV and in the movies, with every renaming of racist ideology, with every law put in place to prevent people from exercising their Constitutional right to vote—with just about everything, really.
The hypnotic quality of the film is in Alexandra Strauss' editing, which has no concern for time or place. Images jump from one to the next, skipping from current footage of where Baldwin lived in Europe, to some racist caricature in a silent movie, to protests across the decades, to Baldwin on "The Dick Cavett Show" as he debates a philosophy professor who wonders why the author has to keep talking about everything through a racial lens, to police officers attacking black men and women, and to photographs of lynchings in the South. Peck finds layers, not only in the juxtaposition of these images, but also within specific images. In regards to those photographs of lynchings, he moves from the horrific sight of one victim to the satisfied looks on the faces of his killers. It's the same look that people surrounding a teenage girl as she approaches a newly-integrated school. The faces of white folks holding up signs with Nazi swastikas are their brethren, too.
It would be accurate but unfair to say that the film is without structure. Peck's challenge is in adapting an unfinished work, which itself doesn't seem to have reached a point at which it would adhere to its own structural promise (The lives and murders of three civil rights leaders are touched upon, although not in such a way that we can call them a narrative drive). He does so by making and leaving everything an unanswered question. There is, at least, one answer here: Baldwin says that the black community's response to Robert Kennedy's 1968 prediction—that there would be black President in 40 years—was laughter. If there's hope to found in the film, it's in the imagery of an election victory—40 years later—that follows.
The structure comes from the marriage of ideas and images. Peck has crafted a film that is both intellectual and visceral. I Am Not Your Negro retains the spirit of Baldwin's work as a social critic, while continuing that work in its own way.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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