Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is an uncomfortable film. It is a faithful film, even a beautiful film at times, but it is also uncomfortable. It cannot be otherwise.
The topic of race relations in America has few middle grounds and many voices of anger and mistrust. How else could it be in a country with such a volatile, complicated, and inescapable history as ours?
In 1931, the German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, traveled through the American South. Bonhoeffer, who would become a staunch, Luther-like opponent to the racial extermination of the Jews by the Nazi regime in a few years time, was horrified at the segregation and hate white Americans had for African Americans. Bonhoeffer writes in his diary:
The separation of whites from blacks in the southern states really does make a rather shameful impression. . . . The way the southerners talk about the negroes is simply repugnant, and in this regard the pastors are no better than the others. . . . It is a bit unnerving that in a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things continue completely uncorrected.
Bonhoeffer found the treatment of African Americans in America shocking, and the dual faces of an America propagating the freedom, brotherhood, and peace of mankind while denigrating fellow human beings was mystifying to the German pastor.
Yes, America’s racial history is complicated, uncomfortable, and dark, and therefore any discussion of America’s racial past and present needs to reflect this complication. Though it has its faults, I Am Not Your Negro is such a film.
I Am Not Your Negro documents what might have been if James Baldwin’s final book project had been completed. In a surprising yet effective choice, Peck uses only Baldwin’s words in the film. It is Baldwin who writes the film, and thus it is Baldwin who finishes his own book. This tool keeps the film from wandering into speculation or even over-politicization of current events. Over-politicization and stripping Baldwin from his context was my primary concern going into this film, and it was a great relief to see Peck let Baldwin tell his own story.
This is not to say that the film is not somewhat political. In some ways, it has to be. The story of racism, racial conflict, and a systemic double-blindness between society and the oppressed is a story necessarily linked to politics. Baldwin wrote, spoke, and debated in the public sphere in order to effect change. His friends, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medger Evers did the same, albeit with very diverse methodologies–a fact that is mentioned in the film. Yet Baldwin existed in his own sphere, which Peck emphasizes.
Baldwin defied category in almost every aspect of his life. He was raised in Harlem in 1924, and lived in destitution. Despite his poverty and abusive home life, detailed in his powerful work “Notes of A Native Son,” Baldwin excelled in school, spending untold hours reading every book he could find in the local library. Baldwin’s written and spoken prose are unmatched, a fact which is used wonderfully in Peck’s film. Baldwin’s opening statement in his famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1965 at Cambridge University is widely considered to be one of the finest debates ever recorded, and it is awe-inspiring to watch Baldwin explore such complicated ideas with no notes of any kind. Peck’s film, as in Baldwin’s writings, illustrates the isolation Baldwin felt. Baldwin says, for instance:
I was not . . . a Black Muslim in the same way, though for different reasons, that I never became a Black Panther: because I did not believe that all white people were devils and I did not want young black people to believe that. I was not a member of any Christian congregation because I knew that they had not heard and did not live by the commandment “love one another as I love you,” and I was not a member of the NAACP because in the North, where I grew up, the NAACP was fatally entangled with black class distinctions, or illusions of the same, which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.
In Peck’s film, Baldwin is given the platform to shine as the brilliant thinker he was. That being said, the film’s editing is somewhat clipped and scattered. There are various “bullet points” that are used to frame the film’s arc, which make the film seem less cohesive. Given Baldwin’s flowing and beautiful prose, the film’s choppiness almost robs the film of its climax.
There are very moving moments in this film, and Peck beautifully interweaves Baldwin’s words with visual accompaniment. When Baldwin writes of his terror watching a black janitor accused of a murder he didn’t commit in They Won’t Forget (1937), Peck shows us the film. When Baldwin expounds the double-sided facade of the media, Peck visualizes Baldwin’s thoughts. One of the most haunting examples of this symbiosis is when Peck juxtaposes the quintessential American “innocence” of the 1950’s, typified by Doris Day in The Pajama Game (1957), with the very real evil of mob lynchings of black men in the South.
In the end, I Am Not Your Negro is not meant to incite “white guilt” or even call out “white privilege.” It is not an attempt to “modernize” James Baldwin. It is not a politicized, agenda-driven documentary. I Am Not Your Negro is instead a window into the experiences and grappling thoughts of James Baldwin. It is a film that asks questions — questions that are meant to make its audience uncomfortable. It is a film meant to confront apathy, ignorance, and hardheartedness toward the discussion of race that has been at the very core of our nation. As Baldwin so wonderfully says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is a film that needs to be watched, for it is a film that provokes discussion about issues so often defaced by political anger, stubbornness, and hatred.
I Am Not Your Negro ends with a simple and profound statement by Baldwin: “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”
This is the question Baldwin asks of us: “Why was it necessary for white people to have a nigger in the first place?”
Final Grade: A