Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck, 2016)

Using the words of the writer James Baldwin, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO looks back on race relations before and during the civil rights era in the United States and draws connections to the way things are today. The film is structured around Baldwin’s abandoned book about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom the author knew.

Baldwin’s eloquent and pointed commentary comes directly from him via archival footage of talk shows and speeches. Baldwin was a teenage preacher, and his performative talents are evident as his presence leaps off the screen when sharing his considered opinions. Here is someone who had been living abroad for a number of years but chose to return and become engaged with the struggle back home. There’s a snap to his point of view because of the passion and intelligence supporting what he has to say.

Baldwin’s words are also delivered through Samuel L. Jackson’s weary voiceover, a stark counterpoint to the “on” personality that comes across in Baldwin’s public appearances. That vocal quality suggests what Baldwin, who died in 1987, might sound like all of these years later when many of the fights he waged are still ongoing, even if the shape of the conflicts have changed. Fifty or sixty years have passed since these divisive issues came to a boil in American civilization. Old images of the outright hostility can be shocking for those of us who have only ever encountered it as history. While progress has been made, Peck’s film underlines the fact that the dream of the 1960s continues to remain elusive in some ways. Jackson’s narration conveys the aggravation and tiredness of the long wait for societal ills to be cured.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is not a film that seeks to reassure, nor should it be. It’s a challenge to those in the majority who consider themselves to be good people yet whose actions, whether actively or passively, don’t back up such a self-conception. The defiance in the title slaps back at the nation’s original sin. It’s up to the recipient to determine if that smack should be taken as an affront or a wake-up call.

Grade: B

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