Review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Directed by: Raoul Peck | 93 minutes | documentary | Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, George W. Bush, Dick Cavett, Ray Charles, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Shumerria Harris, Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston , Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Rodney King, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joey Starr, Rod Steiger, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Billy Dee Williams, Fay Wray, Malcolm X

“Why don’t black people have a more optimistic outlook on life?” The talk show host Dick Cavett, known as a liberal, posed this question to writer and human rights activist James Baldwin in 1968. Because, according to Cavett, black people have made great strides. They play in movies, they can even be seen (!) in television commercials. Yes, of course there are still problems, he admits. “But shouldn’t the moments of progress be celebrated?” A question that is asked with the best of intentions, but which precisely presses the finger on the sore spot and painfully exposes the imbalance in – in this case American – society. In the razor-sharp and confrontational documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (2016), director Raoul Peck ruthlessly analyzes why a celebration of the acquired rights is completely out of the question. He does this on the basis of texts by Baldwin, an intriguing and eloquent opinion maker whose ideas, thirty years after his death, prove not only to be of prophetic value, but also more current and relevant than ever.

Peck – the man behind the film ‘Sometimes in April’ (2005), about the genocide in Rwanda, who was minister of culture in his native Haiti for some time in the 1990s – has made a film that is not easy to pigeonhole fuses. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ consists entirely of texts by James Baldwin (1924-1987); sometimes we hear and see him speak them himself during archive footage of interviews, other times they are spoken by an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson. In the summer of 1979, Baldwin began writing “Remember This House,” a collection of memories of his friendships with three completely different but all murdered human rights activists: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. He was never able to complete the manuscript. Peck took the thirty pages Baldwin had written for ‘Remember This House’ at the time of his death as a basis, supplemented them with old footage of Baldwin himself and drew parallels with the present day. The time of #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarsSoWhite and Donald Trump in the White House. In a careful, kaleidoscopic way, Peck reveals how deeply rooted the problem of inequality is in American society. Not just inequality between white and black, but inequality and intolerance in general. Or as Baldwin himself puts it: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story.”

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ could be a James Baldwin biography; after all, all the words that pass by come from his pen or his mouth. But if this had been a biography in the traditional sense of the word, we would have learned a lot more about the man himself. Only sporadically do we get information about Baldwin. That at a certain point he left the US to live in Europe, for example, where he spent a large part of his life and where he felt more accepted as a human being. That he was homosexual is only apparent from a recording of the then FBI CEO J. Edgar Hoover, who labels the eloquent Baldwin as dangerous to the state because of his ideas. What we do find is that, unlike, say, Malcolm X and his Black Panther movement, Baldwin had no aversion to whites in general. This is due to the bond with his former teacher, who took him to the cinema, museums and theater performances and helped shape him. Experiences that opened his eyes. Because suddenly he realized that he didn’t resemble the ‘heroes’ in the westerns he saw, but the ‘enemies’. Consciously or unconsciously, Hollywood’s ideas of inequality were perpetuated. And when black actors like Sidney Poitier were allowed to play the hero in the 1960s, they were still subservient to their white opponents and behaved as white people expected them to behave.

The man Baldwin is here at the service of the message, but you really can’t see the two separately. As a viewer, you hang on Baldwin’s every word. Not only because he knows how to describe the situation so clearly and accurately and with so much guts, but also because of his passionate way of arguing. And if we don’t see him in the picture, Jackson takes over that role effortlessly. Bitterness and cynicism trickle through, but also (wry) humor. Because of the intensity of the lyrics you are captivated by ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and you start to look at the mutual relationships between people differently. Baldwin makes you think. Why did white people ever find it necessary to create a ‘negro’? Because, as he says: “I am not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.” Peck made a unique film, which sublimely weaves past and present together, and which cuts American society in half to expose the pain points. Between Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and #BlackLivesMatter is about fifty years, but when you see the images side by side, you discover that little has changed. A sad observation, which once again underlines how urgent this documentary is. If you’re only going to see one movie at the cinema or art house this year, make sure it’s this one.

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