I have always known what it means to be Black, but being Black in America was something I had to discover. As a middle-class Black girl born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to parents who deeply valued education, I lived in a bubble of sorts. All types of literature and films about Black history and pride were available to me, and the spaces where I spent my childhood, my elementary and high schools, summer programs and my neighborhood were full of all types of Black people. My mother had subscriptions to Ebony, Essence, and Jet, and my father on a night out, would dress regally in Nigerian lace; gold glittering both himself and my mother. I’d learned of Civil Rights and had even experienced racism myself; though discussed briefly and forgotten quickly, when I stepped over the threshold of my house. This world that my parents had so diligently forged for their eldest dark-skinned daughter was promptly shattered when I arrived in New York City for undergrad. It was there that I truly discovered what it means to be Black in America.
Black pain is old; swirling around tens of dozens of lifetimes; James Baldwin wrote about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem before Kaepernick was even born, he described the Rodney King beating and Ferguson half a century before either event occurred. That’s because the history of being Black in America is not new. It is old and worn and painful; just as exhausting today as it was yesterday. As I’ve been a witness to the murders of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland among so many others, James Baldwin was witness to his own journey in America, atrocities that made him feel both isolated (forcing him to retreat to Europe at times) and weary.
In his heartbreaking documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, examines the story that James Baldwin never finished writing. “Remember This House” was to be a sweeping narrative exploring the lives and journeys of three pivotal men in our history; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. These exceedingly different men who Baldwin knew well and loved, refused to give into the isolation and invisibility cast over Black people in this country. As a result, none of these men lived to see the age of forty.
An intricate and fascinating narrative, “I Am Not Your Negro,” gives us a view of both Baldwin and Peck’s journeys as Black men in America, encountering racism and violence. Using Baldwin’s words and thoughts (voiced impeccably by Samuel L. Jackson), Peck connects the lives of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin to the landscape of American history, reflecting on how the devastating assassinations of these towering men and so many other Black people, are still traumatizing us today. Using clips from classic cinema including Sidney Poitier’s “The Defiant Ones”, audio from Lena Horne’s arresting performance of “Stormy Weather,” and various news clips, interviews, and photos from the past and present, “I Am Not Your Negro” left me feeling utterly raw and stripped bare; a witness at last to authentic American history.
Using the thirty pages from Baldwin’s unfinished text, along with an immense amount of archival footage against picturesque shots from the present day, Peck lushly imagines what Baldwin would have said had “Remember This House” been completed. Always a sensational cultural critic, Baldwin’s lectures and assessments of the NAACP, the Black Panthers and the Nation Of Islam are also discussed here, in conversation with the overall landscape of the United States. It’s clear through his writing that James Baldwin was always trying to grapple with where he fit in society. There is obvious guilt in his writing as well; he was “never in town to stay” but instead acted as a witness to everything happening around him. Most difficult to hear perhaps were Baldwin’s recollections of the moments when he heard about Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin’s deaths. His anguish, through Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, is palpable.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is not a typical documentary, and it’s often uncomfortable to watch. It recalls the surrealist style of the French New Wave; videos, photographs, and texts ebbing and flowing together to create one composite piece. What makes it so compelling is that Peck is able to get at the core of what James Baldwin’s life’s work was. By removing the talking heads and the conventional linear narrative that we see so often in non-fiction work, Peck forces the audience to feel or at least acknowledge what we’ve always felt.
In my adult life, I have often felt isolated. My first few years in New York City, I felt invisible as though I was always screaming at the top of my lungs while strangers stared at me; their faces fixed apathetically on my wounded one. It’s comforting somehow to know that James Baldwin may have felt the same way. After all, as I’m learning, and what Baldwin so eloquently states,”Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” “I Am Not Your Negro” acknowledges the lives that have been taken, and the blood that has been shed here; including the lives of three extraordinary men. It also leaves viewers with a very clear message; that today is yesterday.
Acquired by Magnolia Pictures, with an initial February 3, 2017 release date set, the distribution company screened “I Am Not Your Negro” for a limited special run in December in New York and Los Angeles, to ensure that it qualifies for a potential Oscar nomination (it made the Academy’s semi-final list).
“’I Am Not Your Negro’ is a singular, essential film that has received rapturous responses at every one of our screenings this fall,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles. “Given the current social climate, we are planning one of our most aggressive theatrical releases ever for a documentary.”
In addition, Amazon Studios acquired exclusive streaming rights to the documentary which will also eventually make its broadcast TV premiere on PBS in late 2017.
A full trailer is embedded below (poster above):
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami