Watching the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, the immediate thought that flashed across my synapses was that the racism depicted in the movie, although delegated to another generation far removed by decades of social change, is still evident in today’s society. In fact, it may be more manifest and widespread in social media that it ever was in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – the period of time covered by this excellent film.
The meat of I Am Not Your Negro covers about thirty-pages that James Baldwin wrote towards a book he never finished that recounts the deaths of Medger Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, all of whom were Baldwin’s contemporaries. The book that never was – “Remember This House” – was commissioned by McGraw Hill in the early 1980s but was unfinished by Baldwin at the time of his death in 1987. In a side note not related to the film, McGraw Hill actually sued the Baldwin estate for the $200,000 advance, plus expenses, Baldwin was given for the project. Samuel L. Jackson narrates parts of the text.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the names of Evers, Malcolm X and King are footnotes in history books. Sure MLK has a national holiday named after his achievements, but do you think most people who get off work on that day are celebrating his accomplishments?
James Baldwin was one of the most astute and easy to understand voices of the civil rights movement. I Am Not Your Negro starts out with a clip of Baldwin eloquently discussing basic human rights on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. What follows for the next couple of hours is a montage of the then and now. Ferguson, Missouri was only a couple of years ago. Racism in advertising and in movies was a forte of Baldwin’s scathing criticism.
“A black man who sees the world as John Wayne sees it would not be a patriot but a raving lunatic,” is just one of Baldwin’s clever comments on race relations. Some of the films that pass his scrutiny include No Way Out (1950), and The Defiant Ones (1958). Director Raoul Peck includes scenes from Elephant (2003), along with video of the Rodney King beating (1991) to further his theme.
Historical figures like Raisin in the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Kennedy were a part of Baldwin’s life and are highlighted in this doc. Likewise the forgotten story of Dorothy Counts, who was one of the first black students admitted into a white high school in North Carolina in 1957 commands screen time. That victory was short lived as her parents withdrew her after a week due to threats on her life.
For the record Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Malcolm X was shot to death in 1965 and Medgar Evers was killed in 1963. Some of the then celebrities that appeared in support of civil rights in marches and demonstrations of that era include Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. Perhaps not surprisingly one the films Baldwin was most critical of was the 1967 white girl with black boyfriend meller Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
I Am Not Your Negro advances its narrative with news clips and archival footage that aptly illustrate the divide between the have and the have-nots. Baldwin if nothing else was an excellent critic of the uses of media and advertising to depict social class and its many layers. If you’re left with anything after viewing this film it’s that Baldwin was a sane voice in a wilderness of discrimination.
I Am Not Your Negro opens exclusively at the River Oaks Theatre this weekend.