Reviewing Movies: I Am Not Your Negro

"The story of the negro in America is the story of America; it is not a pretty story," narrates Samuel L. Jackson, in Raoul Peck's profound documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on the writing of James Baldwin's unfinished novel, Remember This House, a disturbingly true story of race in modern (and postmodern) America. James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an "essayist, playwright and novelist regarded as a highly insightful, iconic writer" and social critic. (link) But Baldwin was not just a brilliant thinker, and a good philosopher, but was a force in America for change -- change in the way white people, in particular, viewed not only black people but reality itself.

From IMDb we learn:
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, "Remember This House." The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin's death in 1987, he left behind only 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. (link)
Peck tells Baldwin's story by heavy use of imagery; and this method powerfully conveys the shocking and disturbing history (and present reality) of not only people of color in this country but also Native Americans. For, you see, the white man not only invented the context of "the nigger," a power-context that fueled his imagined authority as superior, but also relegated any non-white individual (Native Americans, Cubans, Mexicans, Latinos) as inherently subservient; this, mind you, while naming themselves "a Christian nation," which is a farce at best, and insisting to the world that America is the land of the free for all its citizens -- a lie if a lie was ever invented.

The marginalization, oppression and overt persecution of people of color in the history of this country is still, tragically, raging, as we witness the evidence every night on TV news; and some white people wonder why organizations like the Black Panthers existed. Wonder no more: as long as innocent black (mostly) men are targets of police brutality, bias and socially stigmatized, then a backlash can be and should be expected.

"Not everything that is faced [confronted] can be changed; but nothing can be changed that isn't faced." Any minority group maintains this sentiment boiling just beneath the lid of its existence: confrontation is an absolute if change is to be a future reality. The path one assumes to attain change, however, may differ. Certainly Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. differed on how to attain equality, even though they shared the same goal. But the men, perhaps, were guided by their respective religious leaders.

Malcolm X, in the vein of Islam-founder Muhammad, chose violence (coercion and domination) if necessary to attain his goal for equality; while King, in the vein of Christian-founder Jesus the Christ, chose non-violence. Both were murdered regardless of their methods. Malcolm's murder was shocking; King's was devastating. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. brought with it a social-conscious sense of dread and hopelessness, as though hope for equality died with him. Through pain and anger and tears and courage and integrity, people of color kept marching, kept fighting for what was theirs, not only as American citizens, but also theirs inherently. We are all human beings who bleed the same color, breathe the same air, sleep under the same stars.

I understand why Peck included, briefly, the brutality inflicted upon Rodney King; and viewing it again brought about such a fury in me that is almost difficult to express in words. But this is the very same reaction induced within me when I see anyone innocently bullied and beaten: LGBTQ people, women, children and minorities. So I was a bit disappointed when director Peck included scenes from Ferguson, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white officer.

What troubles me about this case are the reports that Brown actually charged the officer, having stolen cigarillos from Ferguson Market and Liquor, the theft being reported to the police. Of all the cases in which black men have clearly been either assaulted or killed by white police officers, I would not have included the Ferguson situation in this documentary, as Brown does not seem to fit the ideal of the oppressed black male being unduly targeted by the white man. In other words: I found the inclusion of the Ferguson incident to be distracting from what is otherwise an amazing and powerful documentary of black suppression, oppression, and persecution in this country.

Something James Baldwin said has lingered with me (actually quite a few statements will probably linger in my head for years to come): the manner in which the likes of Gary Cooper and Doris Day perpetuated onscreen an unrealistic and romantic "white" American ideology kept segregationist mentality alive and kicking. Think about the 1978 movie-musical Grease (John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John), a 1950s white middle-class American high school context, and consider the presence of not even one black student in that film. That was a tragic reality in a primarily "white" 1950s.

Then consider the 1988 movie-musical Hairspray (Divine, Ricki Lake, Ruth Brown, Deborah Harry), a 1960s diverse American high school context, wherein interracial romance is still taboo but is, nevertheless, fought for social acceptance. That diversity and social acceptance was brought about at a high price: the lives of black folk in this country. So we are right to ask ourselves: In what ways are we, like Gary Cooper and Doris Day, still perpetuating a "whiteness" about an American identity that is, in fact, unAmerican? Is being white wrong? No. Neither is being black, or Native American, or Asian, or Jewish, or Polish, or Cuban, or Indian. We are human. We are equal.


RATING: 5 out of 5


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.