“I Am Not Your Negro” will make you wish James Baldwin was still around to witness and challenge the racial divide in our nation.
Director Raoul Peck, cinematically completes the unfinished story by James Baldwin, “Remember This House.” The book, which was only 30 pages long by the time Baldwin died in 1987, told the stories of his closest friends, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
With the approval from the owners of Baldwin’s estate, Peck refashioned the story, while keeping the same plot line, into a narrative documentary that eloquently syncs Baldwin’s words and archived interviews narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, into a historical and present day context of what it means to be Black in America.
“I Am Not Your Negro” proves that Baldwin addressed the issues of civil rights not just in writing but in peaceful demand.
The film, which is nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category with two other films about the black experience, “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America,” takes a sweeping look at the socially constructed race relations in America. After last year’s “#OscarsSoWhite controversy,” the film makes history by breaking the cycle of academy award films of Black history that are about slavery.
The motion picture captures Baldwin’s attempts to humanize Black people in America during the civil rights movement and shows the importance for today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Peck flawlessly embodies Baldwin’s literary style in explaining the conceptual problems of slavery in which race has limited significance in the biological sense, yet remains a powerful influence over individual lives and social realities.
The film explored the shifting and contested meaning of race across geographical space and historical time.
In one scene in particular, Peck shows how the black community reunited in the hopes for justice because of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer. This scene was contrasted by the civil rights protests in the south during the 1950s and 1960s.
“I Am Not Your Negro” describes race and racism as a global problem manifested differently in various times and places.
Viewers learn a lot about Baldwin’s life throughout the film and how he ran away to Europe in 1948 only to return shortly after to claim the social responsibility of educating not only White Americans, but also educating our government about Black tolerance.
Peck saw the vision of Baldwin’s original story “Remember This House,” and was able to broaden it by analyzing the contemporary American conception of race and explored racism as the historical phenomena that it is. The film effortlessly shows the idea of race for what it is, not biological but as a social construct.
This is an Oscar worthy film that scrutinizes racism as something that is “done,” enacted by groups of people consciously and unconsciously, and considers the problem of how these frameworks have been challenged throughout United States history.
Baldwin and Peck remind us why Black lives always have and still matter.