When I first heard about the documentary I Am Not Your Negro that is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Raoul Peck, centering around the work of James Baldwin, I knew I had to find a way to see it.
The documentary opens with a James Baldwin interview from 1968 that sets the stage. We then cut to footage from 2014 in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Samuel Jackson’s distinct timbre narrates Baldwin’s words–excerpts from unpublished as well as published works. The novelist was working on a non-fiction work about the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evars, all of whom were murdered. To say this documentary is brutally graphic would be an understatement, as would it be to refer to it as unflinching, but it is both of those things. A grisly image of a murdered Malcolm X’s corpse is just one of the examples of this.
Baldwin describes Bill Miller, a White woman who the local police and most townspeople reviled, because she taught underprivileged youth of colour such as Baldwin. Growing up, he looked to her as a more balanced voice of reason that taught him to consider a multiplicity of perspectives.
The documentary is filled with clips of the most problematic depictions of African-Americans in all kinds of media, from some of the most horrifyingly racist advertisements, including one in which an African-American man emerges from within a gigantic banana, reinforcing the monkey/sub-human framework as well as extending the disarming/non-threatening image tactic, which portrayed African-Americans as docile and meek.
Baldwin despised the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), which is now recognized as incredibly racist. However, in its era, the novel was hailed the same way that the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens were. One of the reasons Baldwin reviled Stowe’s novel is because instead of fighting back or exacting vengeance on the White characters who hurt him, Uncle Tom continuously turned the other cheek. By contrast, Baldwin struggled with the fact that almost every character John Wayne played in his films depicted him as taking vengeance as he saw fit and without batting an eyelash.
As his works gained more notoriety, Baldwin gave more lectures and participated in a number of interviews, most of which are peppered throughout the documentary at key points in the narrative. We see the evolution of how Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. started out on polar ends of the spectrum as far as their views but eventually came to see eye to eye.
Two interesting stylistic choices I want to touch on include the use of typewriter key sound effects while typewritten documents are being shared on the screen, as well as the addition of audio to still photographs such as the sound of fire burning in the background or the horrifying sound of rope swaying back and forth after a lynching.
Secondly, I’m not sure if this was a strategic choice or had to do with the original format of the interviews and clips, but I found it to be an interesting tie-in with the discussions of colour in the film to show Baldwin in black and white almost exclusively until near the end of the documentary when he is shown in colour twice. It may be that this was not a stylistic choice but rather a consequence of the fact that the earlier Baldwin recordings and appearances were filmed in black and white and thus are only available in that format whereas his later clips were filmed in colour. Nonetheless, it added another dimension to the film for me.
Although Baldwin did not and could not have predicted Obama as the first African-American president of the United States (an emotional moment in the film from his inauguration was very difficult for me to watch given the current political climate), or to have predicted the events of Ferguson, his words have a very prophetic association which the film strategically highlights by juxtaposing Baldwin’s words with current events to show just how relevant the things are that he was writing about decades ago, and how even though we feel that advancements have been made, we realize how little has changed.
It is fascinating, but it is also incredibly grim and not for the faint of heart. It is unflinching. It is unwavering. It is fierce. It is unapologetic. And it should be mandatory viewing across schools everywhere for Black History Month, as well as on channels such as PBS or The History Channel. It is even more relevant today than it was when Baldwin first wrote it.