Bearing Witness: The Horror & the Glory of I Am Not Your Negro

Bearing Witness: The Horror & the Glory of I Am Not Your Negro February 13, 2017

I am not your negro
I Am Not Your Negro is filmmaker Raoul Peck’s imaginative recreation of James Baldwin’s last book proposal, a thirty page treatment titled Remember This House. Mr Baldwin hoped to explore American’s heart, and particularly the destructive nature of racism through the lives and deaths of three men he personally knew, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Raoul Peck delivers.

Owen Gleiberman, writing at Variety, tells us Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is the rare movie that might be called a spiritual documentary. It’s a meditation on the prophetic brilliance and the very being of James Baldwin, the African-American writer who was more than a “great thinker” on race — he was the prose-poet of our injustice and inhumanity (and our humanity, too).”

What Mr Gleiberman said. This is a film about injustice, inhumanity, and humanity. It is prophetic, it is ugly, and it weaves something beautiful, like a flower breaking through asphalt, it presents us with hope. I Am Not Your Negro is the best of poetry.

In some ways this film is a collaboration between James Baldwin and Raul Peck. James Baldwin was born in 1924 and raised in Harlem. He spent the larger part of his life in France although he kept in touch, and as an essayist, playwright, and novelist, he established himself as one of the great American intellectuals of the middle twentieth century. He lived intersectionally, as a black man, as a gay man, as an intellectual in American culture hated for all of these things. But, his brilliant mind, and his all encompassing heart could not be denied. Mr Baldwin’s analysis, searing and insightful was also, strangely, mysteriously, again that word, hopeful. He died in France in 1987. Raoul Peck was born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As a small child his family fled the Duvalier dictatorship, and so he was raised in the Congo, the United States, and France. He famously drove a taxi cab in Manhattan for a year, worked as a journalist and photographer, before settling into filming. He was actually even, if briefly, Haiti’s Minister of Culture.

In this film Mr Peck brings an artistic eye that captures something of Mr Baldwin’s soul. The whole film is in fact about soul, about facing in, about witnessing in all the complexities of that word. This film bears witness.

I cannot say how deeply moving I found this film that wove Mr Baldwin’s words captured not merely in that proposal but throughout his writings and through film clips of Mr Baldwin speaking, but also through the lives of those three men who were to be the subject of the book, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King., Jr, and Malcolm X. In the film James Baldwin’s written words are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. And, it is worth noting, Mr Jackson’s work here is not just reading words, he breathed life into the text, reanimating Mr Baldwin. It was an amazing performance.

I Am Not Your Negro premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice award for documentary. It had an Oscar-qualifying run in December of that year before opening for general audiences early this month. It received positive reviews, actually mostly rave reviews from 98% of eighty-six professional reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes, while 82% of about four thousand, five hundred audience members who chose to record a view liked it. It has been nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary.

Jordan Hoffman at the Guardian tells us “By assembling the scattered images and historical clips suggested by Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic séance, and one of the best movies about the civil rights era ever made.” The lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X are presented briefly, but with exquisite precision. But, in many ways, the subject is James Baldwin. Well. Actually, the subject is us, America, in all our our ugliness, and, with it, our potential.

If you don’t understand what the fuss is about with the Black Lives Matter movement, this film is for you. If you do, this film is for you. If you’re black or any kind of person of color, this film is for you.

And, most of all, if you’re white, this film is for us.

Ninety-three minutes opening the window and letting the air in. A spiritual documentary.

I give this movie as strong a recommendation as I can.

I hope you see it.

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