Accidental Critic: I Am Not Your Negro
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
I Am Not Your Negro, a film built around James Baldwin’s unfinished project examining the slayings of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., is not a pretty story. But it is an important one.
Both mesmerizing and deeply disturbing, the film mixes Baldwin’s writings and public speeches with visual footage from the 1960s civil rights movement and more recent racial incidents including the beating of Rodney King and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The result is a compelling meditation on race relations in the United States and what they say about the moral foundation of the nation.
This is not an easy movie to watch, at least for this white woman. It made me flinch; it made me uncomfortable. It made me question my own approach to and position in the world. It made me wonder what James Baldwin would think of me.
By juxtaposing Baldwin’s writings and speeches from the 1960s with footage spanning the time between then and now, the film points out in devastating detail how much America remains unchanged. Yes, we see Barack and Michelle Obama walking down the streets of Washington waving to supporters on his inauguration day as America’s first black president. But we also see photographs of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and a heartbreaking array of other young blacks killed before their time. The film is so densely packed with disturbing images that it’s hard not to see the connection between today’s United States and the nation that assassinated Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Ultimately, what is eye-opening about I Am Not Your Negro is that the writings and speech of James Baldwin are every bit as relevant now as they were in the 1960s. If that doesn’t disturb you, it should.
But I Am Not Your Negro also reminds its viewer of Baldwin’s strength and insight and wisdom. If you’re not familiar with his writings, it’s a marvelous introduction. If you are, it will remind you what you love about him. Do not avoid this film because it is disturbing. Embrace it because it is powerful and eye-opening. Learn from it.
Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. It is currently in other theaters across the country. I saw it at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, where it is playing through early April.
More on James Baldwin:
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.