“The story of the negro is the story of America.”
These words of spectacular truth echo throughout the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro and are defined greatly by Raoul Peck’s final documentary product. Uneasy proclamations such as these can bristle the privileged but the work of James Baldwin, forever immortalised in this stunning film, is an education on slavery, racial discrimination, Civil Rights, and the embedded tension that still runs rampant in the USA today.
I Am Not Your Negro is easily one of the most vital documentaries of recent years, if not ever, and should be used to teach and help others understand. The film is based on the written work of Baldwin, from an unfinished manuscript, that is a detailed examination of race in America and an incendiary comment on the powers that be that have allowed this to rampage to this day.
I Am Not Your Negro is an inciting piece that allows Baldwin’s in-depth and at times emotional perceptions of his world and the prejudice he suffered. A close ally of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Baldwin had seen friends, colleagues, and people executed, incarcerated and beaten due to the colour of their skin. With his memories and his studying, Baldwin dissects racism and shows how ingrained it is into our society. Going over everything from slavery to modern issues, Peck uses Baldwin’s work to detail the suffering that USA has built its history on.
Working closely with the words, Peck visualises the film with snippets of Baldwin interviews and lectures as well as photos of the era where the Civil Rights movement was at its height. The powerful, haunting imagery depicts murder and brutality that black people had suffered due to blind ignorance. It’s harder, however, not to feel the ache with more recent images of Ferguson and Flint: where decades-old words of how the human population can move forward with intellect and understand are juxtaposed with modern warfare between race, the police and the government. It’s a hard pill to swallow but the truth of Baldwin’s words will ring out and capture you.
Despite Samuel L. Jackson’s eloquent and poetic delivery of Baldwin’s text, it’s really the words that you remember. Peck gives James Baldwin a new platform with an engaging and aware documentary. I Am Not Your Negro is indicative of all of us and how we could do better with understanding, empathy and community.