I Am Not Your Negro (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Baldwin Remembers

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First, let me confess that I am not that familiar with James Baldwin, a renowned African American writer who was one of the notable figures in the Civil Rights Movement in US during the 1960s. Although I came to know a bit about him through a brief scene in “Capote” (2005) (“Jimmy. Your book is about a Negro homosexual who’s in love with a Jew. Wouldn’t you call that a problem?”) and then learned a little more about him during recent years, I have never tried to explore his books, which have been one of numerous blind spots in my knowledge in fact.

Considering that it mainly focuses on Baldwin’s ideas and philosophy instead of providing a wider view of his life and career, I may not be an ideal audience for Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro”, but the documentary still engaged me thanks to its compelling collage of words and images, and I came to reflect more on his sharp, eloquent observation on the inconvenient sides of the American society. While there have been some progresses in the American society indeed, race is still a troubling issue there as shown from many recent incidents, and his words accordingly feel relevant as before.

In 1979 June, Baldwin planned a personal book project focusing the Civil Rights Movement era via the life and death of three legendary activists who were also his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As reflected by his letter to his agent Jay Acton, he was eager to proceed with what could have been his magnum opus, but his project was ultimately left unfinished only with a 30-page manuscript, and he passed away several years later.

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The excerpts from that unfinished manuscript, read by Samuel L. Jackson on a rare understated mode, are accompanied with a deft mix of various archival footage, photographs, news clippings, and documents, and the result is a vivid glimpse into that violent, tumultuous time in US during the 1960s. As the Civil Rights Movement was continued against segregation, racism showed its ugly face throughout the country in response, and there are a number of sobering moments as the documentary shows several archival footage clips and photographs of white people being openly racist in public.

Even when he was a young boy growing up on Harlem Streets, Baldwin was keenly aware of the racism prevalent in the American society. Watching John Wayne movies, he recognized their racist aspects, and he found himself more identifying with Indian characters rather than John Wayne. He also noticed that many black characters in those old Hollywood films are caricatures far from real black people he knew, and he certainly felt anger and contempt about that.

Baldwin eventually moved to Paris in 1948, and he could have just stayed there as wanted, but then there came a turning point when he saw the harrowing photographs of Dorothy Counts, a young black girl in North Carolina who had to endure several humiliating days for attending a high school attended by white students. Although he did not miss his country much (“I have never been lovesick for anything American.”), he saw that he had to observe and participate in the Civil Rights Movement, and that was how he came to meet Medgar Evers, who guided Baldwin in the South for Baldwin’s subsequent article “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.

He also met Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and we get an amusing episode on how nervous Baldwin was when he found Malcolm X sitting right in the very first front row before beginning his public speech in front of many audiences. As observing how much Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were different from each other in many aspects, Baldwin also points out that they eventually converged on common areas, and we can only wonder how much these two towering figures would have achieved more together if they had not died so early.

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Baldwin’s words vividly describe to us those sad, despairing moments caused by the deaths of his three friends. Not long after he said goodbye to Evers, he heard the news about Evers’ death while he was in Puerto Rico, and that bright tropical day felt far less sunny to his eyes. When he was in London a few years later, he heard from his sister about the assassination of Malcolm X, and that was another devastating blow to him. While he was working on the screenplay for a Malcolm X biopic film in LA during 1968, there came the news of King’s death, and the situation continued to look less optimistic than before while that biopic film in question never got made (he wanted Billy Dee Williams to play Malcolm X, by the way).

As trying to be optimistic with reserved hope, Baldwin also showed his deep worry and despair as alarmed by how the American society kept letting itself deluded as before. During one archival footage clip from the Dick Cavett show, he clearly and passionately made his points in front of Cavett and a smug white intellectual guest, and his argument uncomfortably resonates with the present of the American society. As he shrewdly discerned, the American society is mired in virulent denial and moral apathy without never fully facing its race problems and their origin for many years, and, as many of you know, it surely excels itself during the recent Presidential election.

Although it is sometime a little too heavy-handed in its juxtaposition of the past and present of the American society, “I Am Not Your Negro” is impressive as a meditative observation on James Baldwin as a writer and observer, and I particularly enjoyed his pointed observation on Sidney Poitier’s several classic films such as “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Overall, this is one of the better documentaries coming out during last year, and it can be a good introductory guide to you if you are unfamiliar with Baldwin and his works like me.

A photographer of author James Baldwin smoking a cigarette.

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