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article imageReview: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ exemplifies activist James Baldwin’s work Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Feb 25, 2017 in Entertainment
Samuel L. Jackson narrates ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, which transfers civil rights activist James Baldwin’s poignant words to a moving, incendiary documentary by Raoul Peck.
When certain issues take centre stage in the world, at home or both, it’s not surprising to notice an uptick in the number films — fiction and non- — that address related subjects. Whether inspired by current events or a years-long project that can finally secure financing due to its sudden relevance, there can be a perceptible surge of these types of movies. It’s unimportant which category the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro falls under, but rather that it was made and has some very important things to say.
James Baldwin was a writer of novels, essays, plays, poetry and social criticism. He lived much of his adult life in France because he wanted to work somewhere he felt safe. However, he returned to the United States in 1957 in the midst of the civil rights movement and became one of its most recognized spokespeople, having even graced the cover of Time magazine in 1963 for its issue on the unrest in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1979, he had begun a book that would link the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately at his death in 1987, he left only 30 completed pages. With the permission of Baldwin’s estate and using this unfinished manuscript and his other works, filmmaker Raoul Peck has created a moving documentary that connects Baldwin’s writing to the current, persisting issues of race in America.
While Baldwin’s ideology fell between Malcom X’s muscular approach and King’s nonviolent tactics, his poignant, clear and stylish manner of analysing the issues in his writings elevated him to becoming one of the key voices of the civil rights movement. His words are given voice by Samuel L. Jackson in the film, alongside archival footage of his television interviews on the subject in which he positions the black problem as an American problem: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.”
Peck uses Baldwin’s life and works to examine race in the United States, connecting the civil rights movement to today’s Black Lives Matter. The film traces the history of the movement chronologically via the tragic deaths of the three aforementioned activists. “I was raised to believe that the eldest was supposed to be a model for the younger and was of course expected to die first. Not one of these three lived to be 40.”
The documentary also explores black representations in Hollywood and the on- and off-screen portrayals of actors such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, particularly when compared to the movies of Western hero John Wayne. A photo of white protesters ridiculing young Dorothy Counts as she walked to a newly integrated school are shown while Baldwin recounts feeling a sense of shame that no one was there to walk with her that day. His expression of the era’s frustration and anger are connected to the same sentiments that continue today, demonstrating the enduring relevance of his work. When responding to comments that he appears bitter, Baldwin said, “I may or may not be bitter, but if I was I’d have good reason for it.”
The film connects to today’s problems with contemporary images of black teens like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown who pointlessly lost their lives in recent years. Yet it ends on the air of hope Baldwin carried throughout his life and which can continue to serve as words of encouragement: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Director: Raoul Peck
Writer: James Baldwin
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
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