Looking at all the nominees for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards this year, with the subject matter in each, I would hope it’d be obvious how important this category is and why it should have just as much clout as the big awards given that night. Sorting through the films selected, we have a film about an autistic boy who learned to adapt to life through Disney films, a film about the European migrant crisis and, a very popular subject in the last year and a half again, the trial of O.J. Simpson from the nineties. The two other films are 13th, from Selma director Ava Duvernay, about the overwhelming amount of black Americans stuck in the prison system and, the film that is the focus of this review, I Am Not Your Negro. Both of these are and have been hugely relevant for a long, long time and never more relevant than today, when racial tensions are at a fever pitch.
The film is a very ambitious project from Haitian-born director Raoul Peck, as he attempts to finish novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic James Baldwin’s uncompleted novel Remember This House. The narration is provided by actor Samuel L. Jackson but the term of “narrate” takes a back seat as Jackson really provides the voice of Baldwin himself, giving him a second chance to make an impression of the movie-going populous, thirty years after his death. In its most concentrated form, Baldwin uses the presence of three strong black voices snuffed out far before their time, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all shot because of the fear of change they stirred in those afraid to create equality in race.
The terrifying reality of I Am Not Your Negro is unflinchingly put in your face as Baldwin talks about these racial tensions and systemic racism over images played out over the ages that he witnessed himself but then over top of events that happened recently, such as the riots in Ferguson. Peck is able to bring everything Baldwin says into the present reality and illustrates that, even if segregation has been abolished in most of America, these issues are still nowhere near a livable standard and that, with the new President and national alt-right rise, are reverting back to these dark times of division and hate. As much as the times change, much stays the same and doesn’t seem to have any light showing at the end of the tunnel.
With the words of James Baldwin spoken over images of images of anti-black rallies, blatantly racist ads and the depiction of blacks in movies, the stomach churning rage this film incites makes it hard to sit through without wanting to scream. At one point, Baldwin addresses Bobby Kennedy’s claim that maybe in forty years there will be a black president. How would the very prolific novelist think about the reaction to Barack Obama’s two terms and then the president to follow him? What would his level of hope be for the world we live in now, where the voice of hate tries to drown the voices of compassion, love and understanding? I Am Not Your Negro should be celebrated, not in just an awards setting, but for illustrating an important man who, through the words and actions of some of the greatest black political voices along with his own, strives to change a systemic problem by shedding more light than there had been before. 4.5/5