Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Review: I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin was brilliant. His words remain so. So prescient and so timeless, his vision of the American Negro has retained its resonance decades after his death. All of this is self-evident. It would stand to reason then, that this visual essay of sorts--combining his words with archival and historical footage of him and others--would be compelling. Aligning his writing with images, past and present, should result in a film that speaks powerfully to our time.  And while Raoul Peck's film reaches those heights at times, certain missteps keep it from being what it could have been.

James Baldwin, the legendary author and activist, left behind an unpublished manuscript called Remember This House. Remember This House was meant to serve as Baldwin's meditation on the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film relies on passages of the text, read by Samuel L. Jackson, and coupled with powerful images, old and new, to weave together a narrative about Black people in America.

While the film does use the deaths of those three civil rights icons as a basic structure, it muddles the picture by conflating those deaths with the deaths of other, more random figures like Lorain Hansberry and certain of Baldwin's own younger family members. I don't mean to diminish the importance of these deaths, but in the film, no cause of death is offered for any of these. So these seemingly more 'innocent' deaths juxtaposed with civil right icons who were murdered for their work struck me as an odd choice. And that odd choice conflicts with the very structure of the film itself. 

The film also seems intent on being stuck in the moment, which is a choice that will make it a crowd pleaser. There are populist images of Trayvon Martin and others that are used to ground Baldwin's words in the events of today. But honestly, a subtler approach would have had the same impact. There are moments when something as simple as the look on Baldwin's face as he was asked a question was enough to conjure up thoughts of contemporary politics. It would have been a more refreshing approach to trust the audience to do at least some of the work of bridging the gap between Baldwin's words and their lives. 

That said, there were several moving moments--particularly extended reels of Baldwin explaining his thoughts or defending his philosophy. Some of the best examples of this are found in clips from his legendary debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. The topic of the debate was "Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?" If you want the most pure distillation of Baldwin's thoughts, I would recommend this as one place to start. 

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