I Am Not Your Negro Review: The Story of America

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When author James Baldwin died in 1987, he left us without one of his most promising works, Remember This House. The unfinished manuscript recollects his personal experiences with civil rights giants Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Director Raoul Peck uses this manuscript as the nucleus to examine racial oppression in the United States in his documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Peck more than succeeds in his attempt. Indeed, he has created one of the greatest documentaries in recent memory.

I Am Not Your Negro does not merely unfold the arguments of James Baldwin. It engages the audience in intense debate and discussion. The film, packed with interviews and conversations between Baldwin and others, is in itself a beautifully complex and necessary conversation. It presents an explosive back and forth in which Peck’s uncanny ability to predict the audience’s response leads to the perfect following sequence. Peck chooses clips from movies that both affected and represented the society in which they were created. These films interacted with the world around them. Similarly, the audience interacts with this film in a very important way.

Baldwin often speaks of his journey. By its nature, he does not know where the journey will lead. Through its back and forth, the audience travels with Baldwin on his journey, equally unsure of its destination. The end point turns out to be a question – the need to ask ourselves where racial oppression originated in America and why it persists today.

The film’s photography possesses a superb combination, blending inherent beauty with meaningful subtext to create the kind of imagery that is becoming all too rare in modern cinema. Peck’s choice of stock footage and film clips perfectly encapsulate Baldwin’s vision of a turbulent America, constantly in motion against itself. Themes of division and conflict pervade nearly every frame. From 1960s riots at integrated schools to Joan Crawford dancing, every shot is alive with movement.

Both Baldwin and Peck observe divisions in the United States and paradoxical unity within those divisions. There is a dividing line, as Baldwin notes, between witnesses and actors. There are dividing lines between white communities and black. There are dividing lines within communities of color or, as Baldwin phrases it, “Black class distinction.” But these lines also bind each party to one another. Continuing to use his imagery to echo his message, Peck shows a photograph of Malcolm X and a photograph of Dr. King next to each other. The seemingly separate images of two drastically different ideologues join as one unit in the single shot. This paradox culminates in the ultimate claim of the film: that the oppression and dismissal of communities of color as inferior miss this unity completely. As Baldwin states, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America.”

Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can see that our country is divided. Anyone who reads the news can see the parties retreating away from each other. The conversations we need to have are becoming harder and harder to initiate. Baldwin asserts that “nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and Raoul Peck may have done the job here. Packaging that catalytic question in a beautiful, violently stunning film, Peck and Baldwin force us all to face the racial division and oppression in America. Grade: A+

By Ryan Rose

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