PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

Rage Plus Time Equals Prophecy: 'I Am Not Your Negro'

Anti-integration rally in Little Rock, Arkansas (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

James Baldwin’s requiem for three Civil Rights martyrs is also a letter addressed to future America and its “vast, unthinking, cruel white majority.”


I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (voice)
Rated: NR
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-12-09 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
Editor's note: I Am Not Your Negro is shortlisted for 2017’s Best Documentary Academy Award. In select theaters for a series of special sneak previews this week, the film opens 3 February 2017.
"This country does not know what to do with its black population."

-- James Baldwin, "I Am Not Your Negro

The poet laureate of the American Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin analyzed the nation’s great pathology of racism with a clarity that is vividly presented in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Arriving in theaters at a time when the national dialogue about race is rife with voices shouting past each other, the documentary gives us Baldwin at his most direct and cutting.

Peck based the film on "Remember This House", Baldwin’s unfinished last book. It was meant as an elegy for Baldwin’s three murdered friends, all heroes of the struggle, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers: “I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other,” Baldwin writes. In the film’s deftly structured early sections, Peck teases out Baldwin’s remembrances of the men, and how he defined himself in the context of their legacies.

The interweaving of gritty and bracing archival footage serves as the backdrop for Baldwin’s remembrance, narrated in a low, rumbling crawl by a finely calibrated Samuel L. Jackson. Fortunately, Jackson interprets Baldwin’s words as an actor would, for their meaning and not as imitation. Baldwin’s slightly sing-song and clipped cadences, sounding like a preacher who has left the church but kept the religion, would be difficult to convey without lapsing into parody.

An elliptical film, I Am Not Your Negro is partially a history of the Civil Rights struggle from 1955 to 1968, framed by these three men. It's also an unpacking of Baldwin’s take on white America’s inability to come to terms with race and racism, with which it remains obsessed but also, of which it remains ignorant. There is anger aplenty in the film, but Baldwin’s observations indicate the confusion that might be inevitable in trying to understand the “vast, unthinking cruel white majority.”

Baldwin zeroes in with sharp intent on the “unthinking” part of that description. Starting with the black stereotypes that seeped into his consciousness when he was a child (buttressed by Peck with cringe-inducing film clips), he then tilts into an angrier denunciation of a white population whose TV-addled myopia blinded it to the crushing oppression they were abetting. He decries postwar white society’s vacant materialism as being shot through with grim violence.

Baldwin contrasts such blind indifference with the three men whose brief lives exemplify a principled resistance. Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963) was the stalwart and indefatigable activist. Malcolm X (assassinated in 1965) pulled institutional racism apart like a scientifically minded boxer: he identified its inconsistencies in sharp, stentorian tones and then went in for the kill. Martin Luther King, Jr. (assassinated in 1968) spoke of racism but also past it. He acknowledged its pain and brutality in the present but also insisted on looking beyond, toward the brighter, more equitable future that would surely come as the struggle continued.

In contrast, Baldwin, even though he threads historical analysis and critiques of popular culture through his writing and speeches, frequently turns back to himself as well. Look at this person, he demands, a body, a face, a heart, a soul scarred by racism. Malcolm didn’t address his own pain, and neither did Martin. Both had the leader’s quality of appearing to subordinate their needs to those of their followers.

But Baldwin examines and vibrantly presents his pain, and by extension the pain of black Americans. He brings to his work an urgency and intelligence, crucially cataloging what was happening, then and still. He twins the personal with the economic, focusing on the systemic exploitation of blacks, from popular culture to cheap labor and political disenfranchisement. In this context, Peck’s film shows just how much Baldwin’s ideas have been inherited and carried on in the current era by Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose mordant and deeply personal Between the World and Me might be read as a companion volume.

Near the end of I Am Not Your Negro, we hear Baldwin say to white America, “I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Baldwin insists we face ourselves. His analysis remains just as cogent during the current moment of Black Lives Matter and a president-elect whose surge to power is in part shaped by resurgent white nationalism. I Am Not Your Negro reveals just how little we have faced in the years since he wrote his words.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.