'I Am Not Your Negro' Shines With Dignity
James Baldwin began the work, which he then called Remember This House, in 1979, but only wrote about 30 pages before he died in 1987. He thought of it as a history of America wrapped within the stories of three murdered black leaders – Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Haitian writer/director Raoul Peck has put the work to film, with added material about recent killings of black men by police officers, along with the general look of America now.
The film is nothing like a typical documentary. It’s fragmentary and full of allusions to unexpected bits of culture. It’s an essay that mixes Baldwin’s writing with a lively, poignant visual style. Images range from pictures of King, Evers and Malcom X and their families, to unhappily familiar film and photos of policemen beating black protesters in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then it brings in unexpected clips from early musicals and garish, cartoonish magazine ads featuring black cooks in the kitchens of whites.
The material can be harsh. In a piece of archival film, a man from a White Citizens Council, his face arrogant with his brand of righteous fury, lectures an audience that the moment a black child enters a white school, the white parents should take their children out. The movie embeds that ugly bit with film of the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957 – peaceful black youngsters are escorted into the building by National Guardsmen through a roiling crowd of angry whites that followed by a clip of a woman who says with utter sincerity that god can forgive adultery, but not integration.
Then Baldwin’s words, spoken in magnificent measured grace by Samuel L. Jackson, cite a series of photographs of 15 year-old Dorothy Counts in Charlotte, North Carolina. She wears a modest plaid dress with a round collar and a white bow. Her eyes look straight ahead as white boys make arrogant, hostile mocking gestures and spit on her. Baldwin writes that the photographs made him angry and also ashamed that this child is all alone in these pictures; no ally or supporter walked with her – and this is what brought Baldwin back from the artistic comfort of France to the turmoil of the Civil Rights struggle in America.
I Am Not Your Negro articulates the consciousness of a brilliant man – a black man – whose mind goes all over the historical and cultural map trying to make sense of the misery foisted on blacks in America.
Because Baldwin was a fine writer, the movie is partly about language itself. His writing manages to be simultaneously furious and gentle, and radiantly clear. It’s never awkward or off the point. For decades now, the word “negro” has been out of date. It marks ignorance and often patronizing racism. But the word was current and acceptable to black people in Baldwin’s time, so it resounds all through I Am Not Your Negro, and in a way, the movie rescues the word and gives it a dignity it hasn’t had for all these years.
I Am Not Your Negro shines with dignity from start to finish. Baldwin’s joyous description of his return to Harlem from Paris feels ecstatic. He loves the faces of the people; he loves his family; he loves what he calls “that style possessed by no other people in the world.” And all of this is made coherent by director Raoul Peck’s ingenious blending of images from the past with those of the present. I Am Not Your Negro never lets you escape understanding how the world has changed since Baldwin’s time, and how it hasn’t.
We do not lack films about the injustice faced by African-American’s, but no film that I’ve seen makes you feel so deeply the humanity of people who have been so badly treated for so long.