James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American author and activist whose life was often on the fringes of the American civil rights movement, but due to his self imposed exile in France and his cynical nature never ended up front and center in the movement’s spotlight. He met and describes himself as friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, and I Am Not Your Negro is a narration of his writing, and in particular his writing about these three men and his thoughts about their place in history and what the history of the black man in America really is, read by Samuel L. Jackson and set to images relevant to his prose.
Essentially, watching I Am Not Your Negro is listening to a book on audio while viewing relevant images and interspersing contextual video clips. It isn’t an innovative documentary style, but it does the trick. The style ensures your interest never wanders and emphasizes the points made through Jackson’s voice and Baldwin’s words. Since the words were written in the late ’70s by a man who had largely divorced himself from American culture at the time, the visuals also do the majority of the work in tying the message to the culture and issues of today. Baldwin may be making a point about Alabama but the images we see are from Ferguson, Missouri, for example.
What Baldwin does excellently, better than any author I’ve ever read before, is eloquently and poetically describe the experience of living black in America. The story has been told many times, before, of course, and every person’s experience is going to be a little different, and it seems Baldwin’s may be even more different than most who get films ade about them, but his use of language is so simultaneously sumptuous and descriptive that his account hits home in a way few before ever have, these are the words of a classic author, not an everyman.
The message behind the words in I Am Not Your Negro is very modern, even if the examples and references are very outdated. Baldwin speaks about Malcolm X, King, and Evers in some detail, of course, but he also has much to say about Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Kennedy, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and many other 60’s civil rights icons. What he has to say about these figures is very honest, sometimes praising other times condemning them for what they said and did, and making it very clear that Baldwin himself didn’t align himself with any of the era’s leaders or organizations thinking all of them had their place, but all had flawed visions, as well. He felt liberals were condescending, the church born from a lust for power, the Black Panthers too single minded and angry. No one escaped his criticism, but he also saw the good in most everyone as well. Only conservatives truly eluded him, making him ask, “Why do you need a nigger?”, and admonishing them by telling them that once they figure out the answer to that question they will have their eyes opened to the evils of the United States.
Final recommendation: Baldwin himself makes the point, albeit in a different manner, in I Am Not Your Negro that it is pathetic that racism is still a relevant topic in the modern era of the United States, but relevant it is and will continue to be. African Americans will unfortunately be the largest audience to see this film, most likely, and see it they should as it will give them validation, solidify their feelings with their thoughts, and will almost certainly allow them to see the problems they deal with on a daily basis at a slightly different angle. For those of other races, seeing this film is even more important, as the lessons to be learned within are truly deep, thoughtful, phenomenally spoken, and can hopefully lead to a deeper empathy with our fellow man.
I Am Not Your Negro is normally a film I would say you could wait to see. After all, America’s racism problem is going nowhere soon and seeing this film, as well done as it is, won’t solve those problems overnight, but given the current political climate in the United States the film takes on an urgency and importance not seen since the 1960’s.