I'm Not Your Negro

The outstanding documentary I’m Not Your Negro is about an idea. James Baldwin, the highly acclaimed queer black writer and poet, was tired. He was tired of watching his friends die. He was tired of being subjected to blackness in America. Tired of the beatings, the oppression, and the systematic denial of liberties like education.

He wanted freedom from incarceration, even the liberty to live and breathe. Baldwin was tired of watching his friends die, so he had an idea. And that idea, which so often does in writers, manifested itself as a letter to his editor about a project he wanted to complete. He wanted to write about the lives and deaths of his friends: Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He wanted to write about America, and more importantly, why it was so hard, and would continue to be so, to be black in America. That was 1979, and when he died eight years later, he had only completed 30 pages.

Raoul Peck, the now Oscar-nominated filmmaker, took 30 pages of Baldwin’s mind and transformed it into an epic poem of documentary filmmaking. One that weaves the 50 years of history from the 1960s to present day, intercutting the words of Baldwin as he foreshadows what would become numerous absolutes: The continued systematic oppression and segregation of the black community, the subconscious denial of racism by whites through the interpolation of blackness in Hollywood, and the 40-year gap between the Civil Rights Movement and the election of a black president.

Peck’s idea was to bring James Baldwin back to life. Breathe him into the mainstream by reminding us that he was a witness once, and we can once again benefit from his insight and intellect into the black condition in America. In fact, we can once again look to him to help us define and refine the conscious of America… we are reminded of the words that he uttered to a standing white ovation that ring true today, condemning America’s inability to look beyond race and see equality. His words, powerful as they were, foreshadowed white America’s inability to change all that much. The relevance of his words is deafening when providing narrative to a montage of the current state of black America.

James Baldwin was not your everyday revolutionary. He was gay, and that relegated him to the sidelines of the revolution, although that is never said and is little mentioned in the documentary. He didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with Medger, or Malcolm, or Martin on the front lines. This is important only in that it explains why he was able to speak about these men as both friends, because they were, and as ideas and ideologies. His secondary (or primary, depending on how you slice it) deviation, his sexuality, afforded him access to the literary and artistic world, which is ruled by language as the mechanism for change. His battle weapon was in the words of white men, and his intellect and literary brilliance afforded his transport in the world where only artists can go, and only artists can comment – the spotlight.

It is timely that in the wake of this war on the arts by an authoritarian government, we are in the midst of the artist revolution. Had he been alive today, James Baldwin would no doubt be on the frontlines. Peck has revived his voice to remind us that we can all be witnesses. We can all use our voices and question those who seek to try and return us to the past.

The title of the film references a question Baldwin asks of America. This question is one that gets to the very heart of segregation, supremacy, and whiteness. Yet, it remains unanswered. What Peck does so eloquently, through the editing and pacing of the film, is to frame this as Baldwin’s statement that stand in contrast to this known unanswered question, which was so relevant when it was first asked, and which remains an asked and unanswered question over and over again today: why does whiteness require there to be a Negro? What purpose does that serve; and, more importantly, if we are not your Negros, what then?

I Am Not Your Negro is required watching, and it makes for an important companion piece to Netflix’s documentary 13th, from director Ava DuVernay. Where 13th tells you the “how” of systematic oppression, I Am Not Your Negro tells you the “what and why” and challenges it’s viewers and America as a whole to solve it.

Baldwin’s ambitious idea to contextualize the lives and deaths of three great activists and agents of change for Black America. Raoul Peck has realized that idea by contextualizing the life and work of a great man, James Baldwin, and his razor sharp insight into America. He showcases how this outsider, once ex-patriot, wrapped his arms around America, saw it, knew it’s name, and called it out. It’s a difficult watch, because, very much like his writing and not unlike his dismissive expression when confronted with acerbic condescension, it’s direct and confrontational. You don’t get to look away. You get the honest truth, and you swallow hard, and keep going.

I Am Not Your Negro won Best Documentary from the L.A. Film Critics Association and is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. James Baldwin’s collection of works can be found wherever books are sold.