I Am Not Your Negro: A Review

“I Am Not Your Negro,” is a film that speaks volumes. It’s powerful, and it’s message is eternal and resonates for those that choose to listen to it. The message, as poignant and empowering as it is, however, has echoed so loudly because of a “kind of apathy and ignorance” reserved only for the struggles of “black America.”

Based off the musings of author and social activist James Baldwin, the film openly questions and confronts, the complexities of race in the United States. It exposes many, for the first time, to the atrocities inflicted on African-Americans for centuries.

A blissful ignorance clouds the judgment of many, who chose to ignore the conflicts that engulf the African-American population in the United States, who as Baldwin put it, “don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall, because [they] don’t want to know.”

It’s there, in the stunned silence of the theater as pictures of lynched men, contemporary victims of police brutality and footage of peaceful marches and protests, that America is forced to confront the reality of its misguided ideology. They’re forced to know. It’s staring them in the face.

With this, Raoul Peck, the director, does a masterful job. The audience is forced to confront the continuity of the struggle of African-Americans. Images of police beatings from Birmingham in the 1960’s are interspersed with the same from Ferguson in 2015. Victims of ill-advised aggression (lynching), corpses hanging from trees, innocent and docile, changes, and shows images of black youth, gunned down, bodies bloodied. It never ends.

The prophetic words of Baldwin demand utter attention, presented to the viewer as an apparent inner monologue (so wonderfully narrated by Samuel L. Jackson). It is in this presentation, that the message is so effective. The notes from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House (a proposed book that hoped to detail the murders of his closest friends; Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers) and other works, allow the viewer to understand how Baldwin processed contemporary issues.

These words were not destined to be confined to one era, it was meant to envelop them, for as Baldwin knew, the struggle was destined to continue.
“If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call ‘the Negro problem.’” The problem is manufactured, as Baldwin alludes to, “white is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Power is manufactured and grows only with the help of those complicit in its mission. “It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them,” yet, it has occurred in the United States for centuries.

There’s a crucial aspect to such rhetoric, that shows that the complacency of supposed allies, is far more harmful than the egregious acts of misguided and bigoted men and women. As Peck’s film showcased, the complacency of supposed allies has led to consequences that threaten black lives.

There’s an inner crisis that takes place, where the viewer is introduced to the personal experiences that shaped Baldwin’s work. One understands that for many African-Americans the harsh reality of a diminished existence occurs at a young age. For many “it comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

With this, Peck understood that the intended audience was aware of such travesties, yet, quite often, had refused to act based on that knowledge. For that, the film succeeded in delivering such a message.

For it is not enough to be aware of such horrific oppression. One must use that knowledge to support and overthrow the shackles of oppression. As Baldwin noted, it is not just enough to write and speak of the problem, one must immerse themselves in it.

Only then, will true change come.