Director Raoul Peck’s Oscar Nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro acts as a rumination on race relations in modern America through the lives and violent deaths of civil rights leaders Medger Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. Using writer James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House as narration and powerful archival interviews and footage, Peck offers a profound next chapter in a story still waiting on a conclusion.
I’m ashamed to say if I ever heard of James Baldwin my recollection of his work has all but been forgotten. But his colleagues, Evers, King, and X are still at the forefront of civil rights history and it’s through these men and their very different philosophies that Baldwin dreamed of writing a memoir of his life during these turbulent years. Baldwin died before the memoir was ever completed but his words, used throughout the film, are hauntingly honest, vulnerable, and for me personally, surpass the thunderous oratory prowess of his peers.
What this documentary does so well is provide a slightly different angle through which to view this era of history, through the eyes of an expatriate (Baldwin), a grassroots activist (Evers), a visionary (King), and a reactionary (X). Their lives weave and flow around each other, inspiring, instigating and building on the energies produced by their mutual passions and hopes for their communities. Baldwin’s respect and love for these men is in his words, but so are his fears that living in Paris for as long as he did made him an outsider to the movement. Throughout the film he is an observer and a commentator on society’s oppression of black men, an educator more than a leader. And as the film reveals, it’s Baldwin’s words written 50+ years ago that stand the test of time (if not memory), and are best suited to describe the current state of race relations as they exist today.
As thought provoking as this film is, I have one quibble that is more a gripe on history than this film. Just like the Civil Rights Movement, the writings of James Baldwin, and the speeches and philosophies of King and X in particular are focused around the black male experience in America. Makes sense right? They are black men, and obviously we can only speak from our own experiences. Even as a white woman I can’t speak to a black woman’s unique experience in America, but as a woman watching this film and learning about the Civil Rights era the language used throughout this history is specifically male-centric, and ironically serves to erase an entire population of individuals at the expense of another.
Metaphors involving castration of black men by white society, the black man as criminal, the theft of the “American Dream” as defined as the accumulation of wealth, a wife, kids, and a house with a picket fence. All things that should be attainable for black men. This would be understandable if I Am Not Your Negro acted strictly as a historical document but it very much is a film about present day America. History is our present. But today more than ever, women are seeking their place at a very crowded table and the conversation, whether it be around race or sex or gender rights, must include all voices.
I Am Not Your Negro is one of the year’s best films and one that should be required viewing for all. The prophetic nature of Baldwin’s words is palpable and his final statement uttered in this film will have you pondering your own stance in today’s struggle for weeks and years to come.
I Am Not Your Negro opens today at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.