There is no doubt in my mind that James Baldwin was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century, and I Am Not Your Negro serves as both a history lesson and an introduction to one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
Raoul Peck uses an unfinished, 30 page draft of Baldwin’s to envisage the book that he never completed, translating it into film form. Using a mixture of archive footage of Baldwin and footage depicting the civil rights movement, Peck weaves together a history of blackness in America from writer’s often poetic point of view.
Focusing on three influential figures of the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers (all of whom were close friends of Baldwin’s who were assassinated in the 1960s at the apex of the movement), Peck utilizes the narrative outlined by Baldwin to examine what it means – and has meant – to be black in America.
Peck draws on a variety of Baldwin’s writings, published and unpublished, to provide a narrative for I Am Not Your Negro. What’s particularly interesting is his use of Baldwin’s film criticism as the basis for representations of blackness on screen and the powerful effect that these representations can have. Clips from films like DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Harry A. Pollard’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin are overlaid with Baldwin’s commentary on the negative representation of black people in film.
While we might like to hope that racism is a problem of the past, it is astonishingly clear that this is not true. Peck highlights this by splicing archive footage of Baldwin with footage of black people being attacked, often by members of law enforcement. A clip of a woman thrown around by a police officer is shown. Everyone in the cinema visibly winces. We see photographs of lynchings, but the dehumanization of black people is not just inflicted on their bodies; their minds are affected, too. The police in America kill people nearly every day. I can’t even begin to imagine the fear that this must strike into people’s hearts and minds.
To exist as a black person in America is something that I will never experience. There are some things that cannot be shared by the mutual experience of skin, bones and blood. But I have often felt a frustration with whiteness; a frustration shared by many.
However, much greater writers than I have profiled I Am Not Your Negro in much more depth than I ever could, so I would like to speak about how I Am Not Your Negro made me feel.
As the film ended, and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry” played over the credits, there was a collective exhale from the audience. And then, applause. When I stepped outside the cinema after viewing, the world felt clearer. It was a cool Glasgow evening and everything seemed intensified. I put in my headphones, and the music sounded crisp. I felt like I wanted to be kinder.
In an essay in one of Baldwin’s first books Notes of a Native Son, he writes the following: “The story of the negro in America is the story of America”.
I Am Not Your Negro, then, is not just the story of James Baldwin, or the revolutionaries that were his friends, but the story of America.