"I Am Not Your Negro"

Richard Smaby

James Baldwin had planned a book about his friends: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Remember This House. He never finished it, but Raoul Peck attempts to do that in his new film, I Am Not Your Negro. The film's narration by Samuel L. Jackson comes entirely from the manuscript. We hear also Baldwin himself in various historical film clips. Baldwin says in the narration, "History is not the past. It is the present." Peck takes Baldwin at his word and intersperses film clips from the Rodney King beating, the riots in Ferguson, and other more recent examples of brutality against blacks with clips from Baldwin's time.

"The story of America is the story of the negro in America and it is not pretty," says Baldwin. We think of the Civil Rights Movement as a positive part of our history. But Baldwin’s words remind us, also represented graphically in film clips, that the positive things were born out of the hideous parts of our history: the lynchings, the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the despicable treatment of the black students who integrated the white schools and universities, and economic discrimination.

The film faithfully represents Baldwin's view that blacks were the ones driving history. That while white America was gorging itself on life as depicted in a Doris Day movie, blacks knew that that life was illusory.

The disconnect between white America and black America was poignantly shown in a Dick Cavett show with Baldwin debating Paul Weiss, a philosophy professor from Yale. Weiss took Baldwin to task for putting too much emphasis on color as the principal division in the country. He maintained that other characteristics were equally important, for example, that Baldwin had "more in common with a white author than someone [presumably a black person] who is against literature." Baldwin destroys Weiss’s argument by passionately listing the real life injustices that unite all blacks.

Go to The Grand Cinema and remind yourself of one of the most important periods in our history from the deeply personal perspective of James Baldwin. And read an insightful review of the film in Film Journal International.