I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (France | USA/12A/93mins)
Directed by Raoul Peck. Starring Samuel L. Jackson.
THE PLOT: Based on the unfinished manuscript ‘Remember This House’ by James Baldwin, I am Not Your Negro examines the relationships, tensions and often outright fear and hatred between the white and African-American populations of the US. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson – who stands in for the late James Baldwin –the film is also interspersed with footage of Baldwin himself, and draws a powerful comparison between the unrest and violent incidents in Ferguson in 2014, and the 1963 riots in Birmingham Alabama.
THE VERDICT: As mentioned, ‘I am Not Your Negro’ is a powerful and surprisingly anger free look at the relationship between the white and African-American populations of the US in the 1960s. Author and social activist James Baldwin originally wanted to write a book on the subject, based around the lives of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr – which he also wrote about in his book No Name in the Street.
Samuel L. Jackson takes on narration duties for ‘I am Not Your Negro’, and gives an uncharacteristically sombre and measured performance as he reads through Baldwin’s words. These words are beautifully, carefully written, and shine a light on the political situation in the US at the time when the manuscript was written, as well as Baldwin’s own feelings about the issues, and his reluctance to return to the US from France, where he had been living.
James Baldwin’s words are measured and beautifully put together, giving weight and strength to his arguments and ideas, as they are presented without hate or fear, but just as he sees the world he lives in. Director Raoul Peck has put together a film that combines images from the riots in Alabama, footage from speeches by Malcolm X. Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr with juxtaposing images from white American culture that both shock, and show up the differences between the two populations. As well as this, the film includes Baldwin himself speaking at Cambridge College debates in 1965, on the topic “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro”. When both speaking himself or when Samuel L. Jackson is providing his words with a voice, James Baldwin comes of as reasoned and educated, while also being passionate and resolute in his beliefs.
Peck paces ‘I am Not Your Negro’ incredibly well, breaking the film up into chapters such as Witness and Heroes, and while this gives structure to the film, it never overwhelms it. Other than Baldwin’s own words, little information is given about the author and social activist, but this is not needed to understand the power and grace of his words, and allows audiences unfamiliar with Baldwin to seek out his work in the future.
In all, ‘I am Not Your Negro’ is a thought provoking, powerful piece of cinema that both gives a history lesson to the audience, while shining a light on the cultural problems and race relation tensions in the US today. Sadly, the film has become ever more topical with the current US President in power, an outcome that even Baldwin could not have predicted.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a very timely film. It weaves the past and the present to form a view of a superpower in crisis from the African-American perspective.

    Harlem-born writer James Baldwin never finished his book Remember This House. It was meant to be a reflection on the contribution of three important and wildly different Civil Rights campaigners in the 1960s: Medger Evers, Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King. His thoughts from the book are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Archival footage of TV interviews with Baldwin illustrate his ability to tackle America’s tense race relations in a clear and convincing manner. As Baldwin says himself at one point – ‘The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story.’ Occasionally, recent news footage of riots involving young unarmed black men being beaten and shot down by the police draw a parallel to modern times…

    Raoul Peck’s film may be rooted in the race relations opinions of a writer who died nearly 30 years ago, but it’s a story of now as much as it is a story of then. Race relations have improved in America since the 1960s, but not to the point that we would hope for. What would Baldwin make of President Trump’s isolationist, divide-and-conquer America now? It’s an intriguing thought, something which was obviously on Peck’s mind as he drops in a brief clip of President Trump at one point. Moreover, the film is as much about cinema as it is about race relations. Baldwin was a keen filmgoer and was acutely aware of representations of African-Americans in Hollywood, finding disillusionment with stereotypes and even challenging trail-blazer Sidney Poitier. He comes up with some interesting takes on the modern American hero and why the African-American was shut out of these roles for so long.

    Jackson dials down his usual vocals for a more sombre, subdued narration. It’s very well done, weighing and delivering every word for extra impact. But what impresses the most is Baldwin himself. He was an eloquent but powerful orator, able to argue his point without raising his voice. As he discusses the Civil Rights movement on TV chat shows and debate forums one can’t help but nod in agreement and how it needs to be progressed further even now. And yet America is now turning in on itself. Peck uses a non-linear structure in telling Baldwin’s story, but it actually works very well. There’s a singular vision running through it all, whether in the past or the present. There are important lessons to be learned here, but I Am Not Your Negro is not meant to be an academic lecture. It’s a reflection on troubling race relations in America, as viewed through the eyes of a man who knew how to honestly hit the nail on the head. We could use a man like him now. Highly recommended. ****