February 22, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro: Documentary Inspired by James Baldwin’s Unfinished Manuscript

When novelist/social critic James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he left behind an unfinished work titled Remember This House. The 30-page manuscript assessed the plight of African Americans in the United States and specifically discussed the assassinations of three civil rights icons: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck (Lumumba), cinematically fleshes out Baldwin’s musings into a searing indictment of the United States as an unapologetically racist nation. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the movie has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.

The focus of the film never strays far from Baldwin, alternating between archival footage of him challenging the status quo and Jackson’s readings from Remember This House and Baldwin’s other writings. Again and again, he questions the depth of the country’s commitment toward reversing the damage inflicted upon the black community by generations of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow segregation.

For example, he asserts that most Caucasians are perfectly comfortable relegating African Americans to a second-class status. He even goes so far as to refer to them as morally blind monsters who see blacks as sub-human. Until that attitude is eradicated, whites will never recognize that “I am flesh of their flesh.”

Baldwin concludes that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” Therefore, with black and white fates inextricably linked, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”

Given today’s precarious state of race relations, the late visionary’s insights prove timely now.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, violent images, and brief nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures