Nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar this year, I Am Not Your Negro is an important and incendiary documentary.
Using the writing of novelist, journalist, playwright, poet and critic James Baldwin – a figure at the heart of the civil rights movement in the 1960s who as well as being a respected author and speaker was also friends with Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King. The film explores the still unequal place of the African American in modern world, by using historical context combined with stark footage of recent protests and police brutality.
By placing footage from the civil rights protests in the middle of the 20th Century directly against black and white footage from arrests and protest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014/15 it shows that on one level very little has changed. The moment the colour is brought back to the picture is like a sucker-punch – this is not footage from the 1960s, this is America now. Police are still killing and brutalising people of colour.
The film is stark in its message – by using the writings and letters of Baldwin, narrated in the almost laconically mellifluous tones of Samuel L. Jackson it is clear how much still needs to be done. The tone is almost laconic, but Jackson’s skill is in lacing the words with such weariness it calls to mind the recently seen protest banner in America: “I can’t believe I’m still having to protest this shit.”
James Baldwin died in 1987 – he was an erudite and well spoken figure who had become a popular speaker on the majority white media of the 1960s. The title of the film explains a railing against that attitude. Baldwin had a voice, but he couldn’t and didn’t want to accept a place as the “cuddly negro” spokesperson the media clearly wanted for him. He was angry, but placidly spoken, and the footage of his speeches in the movie are a powerful tonic to anyone thinking things are okay.
Laced with the historical context which was the legacy of the slave trade in the United States, the anger fuelling the civil rights movement was divided. The Black Panther movement and Malcolm X advocated a more violent or physical fight back – Dr Martin Luther King was a Christian leader who proposed peaceful civil disobedience. Baldwin was friends with them both, and had sympathy with both points of view.
Meant as a cinematic creation of a book Baldwin never completed, but had corresponded with his agent about, I Am Not Your Negro is a weary examination of a job only partly completed. Director Raoul Peck reimagines the material with skill.
A speech he gives to the Oxford Union in the UK during the 1960s is a case in point. He receives a standing ovation from the students gathered for his powerful words, but not a single other person of colour can be seen in the room.
I Am Not Your Negro is eye-opening, a sure well aimed dig in the stomach of complacency. It is historically fascinating, and deeply disturbing. Things with the treatment of the African Americans in the US are not okay, and no one should be under the misapprehension that they are.
A powerful and recommended watch, the film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 7th April.