I Am Not Your Negro: A Time Capsule Into the Past And the Future

Brandon Caldwell | 2/10/2017, 11:52 a.m.
The set up for Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is reflective of the times. Baldwin, one of Black ...

The set up for Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is reflective of the times. Baldwin, one of Black America’s foremost voices on race relations in the 1960s to the point he’s been lionized for all time is made to feel as if he’s speaking for the current. No less than five minutes into Peck’s film are we shown various scenes of anguish and protest from Ferguson, Missouri. It’s the film’s biggest allegory that Baldwin’s work, even when originally framed around the deaths of three of his friends can be echoed for all time.

Baldwin is initially pressed with a question about “negro” optimism and he lets out an exasperated sigh. It's eerily reminiscent of many a conversation Blacks have had in this country in regards to “solving” racism. He responds in kind that it’s not on black people to be the cure for racism. Because black people are constantly aware of something, while whites are far more in line to wistfully ignore it.

Your cursory idea of “I Am Not Your Negro” is not a crash course into James Baldwin, the man. It is a film based around Baldwin’s thoughts from an unfinished manuscript. The 31 pages of “Remember This House” play out as a letter to a friend, with Samuel L. Jackson’s voice operating as the main vehicle of Baldwin. As a literary titan, Baldwin’s views of the world have been captured in “The Fire Next Time” and archived speaking engagements across the globe. He was the fearless one, even when the FBI had a watch on him as if he were a fire-stroking revolutionary.

Peck, whose previous work included 2000’s “Lumumba” decides to take viewers on a bit of a history lesson, showing the parallels between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today. Creating a movie with Baldwin involved him contacting the estate. “His sister had seen my film. “Lumumba” and when I asked for the rights, she agreed to everything, which was unprecedented.” It would be four years before he had any grasp on how to present “I Am Not Your Negro” before finally settling on the work of “Remember This House”.

Death as it were is a far greater muse than we let it on to be. Baldwin knew the subjects of “Remember This House” intimately as good friends. None of the three main subjects, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X & Martin Luther King Jr., lived past the age of 40. Lorraine Hansberry, who died at 34 from pancreatic cancer was a minor vehicle for Baldwin in the manuscript. He mourned her death, opining on the idea that she was a victim of the fight for equality. A playwright, fearless, had smoked more than three packs a day. The weariness that bore on Baldwin in the 31 pages of “Remember This House” are echoed today.

The beliefs and accolades lobbed towards the now Oscar-nominated film are strong, if not astute. How Peck chooses to jump around with the timeline to show the parallels is concise editing. His parallels aren’t completely direct, there is no modern take on how whites and others attempt to dictate race control upon blacks. But there is archival and historical footage of how black men are depicted. Of how horror films of their time were actually crime dramas where black men were found guilty before their peers. There’s anguish over the death of Emmitt Till, his grisly lynching still bearing scars some fifty years later. Lies still hang heavily upon the constant view of Black America, even as unrepentant racism and more has not only tugged on America’s skirt, it has disrobed her completely.