Race Matters

History, patience and frustration: A review of I Am Not Your Negro

Runnymede Policy Officer Kimberly McIntosh reviews the Oscar-nominated documentary based on unfinished work by celebrated writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin.
IMAGE: JAMES BALDWIN BY ALLAN WARREN
I Am Not Your Negro is the latest documentary which, along the same lines of 13th and OJ: Made in America, uses the form to disrupt the neat narrative of the American Dream. Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated film is based on the unfinished and unpublished manuscript Remember This House by James Baldwin. Baldwin was pioneering as a novelist and as an individual: a black, gay activist prominent in the Civil Rights movement. Sadly his sexuality is mostly missing from the discussion in I Am Not Your Negro. Having personally known Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Medgar Evans, he returns from self-imposed exile Paris following their deaths. He can no longer be complacent. And neither can America. “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America,” Baldwin opens, his written word narrated by Samuel L Jackson, “And it’s not a pretty picture.” The documentary is built around these three Civil Rights figures’ assassinations, but, like Baldwin’s writing, is about unveiling the true story of America, so it can no longer be ignored in ignorance.

Time, patience and history are woven together in what sometimes feel like disparate clips of Baldwin being interviewed, archival Civil Rights footage and recent protests in Ferguson. But not without purpose; the history of America is messy and disjointed and for black America the story hasn’t changed. “History is not the past. It is the present,” Baldwin says. Peck makes this clear early on by using a clip in which Baldwin asked: “Why aren’t black people more optimistic?”  The rest of film answers this question by forcing the audience to ask a new question: ‘How long do we have to wait for equality?’ And with Civil Rights regressing in the US, this is more salient than ever.

A battle between urgency and complacency leads to staggered, incremental change. Peck challenges the willful, devastating ignorance of white America to the true violence of the African American plight. His uses a clip from Baldwin’s 1965 debate at Cambridge University. The debate question: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” juxtaposed with the suffocating formality of the Cambridge Union says it all. It is easier to intellectualise a problem than it is to solve it, and believing in change is not the same as making it. Baldwin is given a standing ovation at Cambridge University, but nothing has changed. This realisation spurred Baldwin to “no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.” Peck uses this film to ask white America to do the same.

 
Follow Kimberly McIntosh on Twitter: @McIntosh_Kim
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