Before he died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63, Baldwin was working on the book, “Remember This House,” a story about American race relations told through the lives and murders of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I Am Not Your Negro attempts to complete the manuscript. It blends Baldwin’s interviews and lectures (such as his debate with William Buckley at Cambridge University, interview with Kenneth Clark, and more) with scenes and images from past and current civil rights struggles.
My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine their history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become quite incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
— James Baldwin
The film holds a mirror to the great myths Americans tell themselves to sanitize the country’s bloody history and is a haunting reminder of the lack of progress in the 30 years since Baldwin’s passing. Images of protest and segregation that were taken decades ago are presented along modern day images and the similarities are disturbing.
Notorious footage of police beating, hosing, and sic’ing dogs on peaceful protestors is not a far stretch from the military gear and tanks of Ferguson. The photo of police standing on a Black woman’s neck reminds the viewer of Eric Garner pleading for breath.
When a White woman told a reporter that God forgives murder and adultery, but is “angry” at integration, that statement rings with loud irony, considering the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching, or the current discourse on whether or not Islam is a “religion of hate”.
The film provides context for the anger and concern some have towards a President-elect who has been more direct in criticism on a civil rights leaders like John Lewis than he’s been on the Klu Klux Klan or Russia.
Like Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro is unflinching in pointing out the myths and hypocrisies of a “complex country, which insists on being very narrow-minded”.
For example, the segment dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. shows what the seminal figure fought and paid the price for.
As activists, historians, and politicians try to claim MLK as a figure, who he was and what he actually did stands in start contrast to the platitudes used to both pay him homage and delegitimize current movements like Black Lives Matter. The film also speaks on how, before his assassination, Malcolm X’s racial politics and visions of Black nationalism became more progressive.
One of the critiques of Baldwin’s work is the absence of the experiences of Black women. I Am Not Your Negro attempts to mitigate it a bit, including the stories of Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Betty Shabazz, and Lorraine Hansberry.
But in using Baldwin’s words (which frequently short-handed the Black community as the plural “Black Man”) and concentrating on three male figures of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s hard for the film not to filter history, at least partially, through a “great man” narrative.
But aside of its shortcomings, I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that the post-racial America some long for did not come when a Black man walked into the oval office.
Writer for The Atlantic and New York Times bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates once tweeted that Baldwin “avoids the moist, vague jargon of social justice. He just throws darts.” The documentary, like Baldwin’s decades of work, holds a mirror to the American conscience. For the millions of Americans who would like to go back to the 1950s, I Am Not Your Negro shows what they would be going back to.
Baldwin pushed for an America that will address systemic racism, and create a solidarity rooted in justice and common humanity, not in cordiality through pretending our history and our issues don’t exist. I Am Not Your Negro suggests that America’s ability to change its future is inextricably linked to its ability to accept its history.
“It’s not a racial problem,” Baldwin said in a forum with Dick Gregory in London. “It’s a problem of whether or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.”
Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives.
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