I Am Not Your Negro

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday May 12, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

Nominated for 2016's Best Documentary Oscar, "I Am Not Your Negro," poignantly and painfully links the Civil Rights movement to #BlackLivesMatter through the filter of an unpublished and incomplete James Baldwin book, "a matter of research and journeys."

Gay African-American writer Baldwin had written 30 pages of "Remember This House," outlining the lives of murdered friends, the three M's: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., very different men with the same goal, all assassinated while relatively young (in 1963, 1965, and 1968, respectively). King started his work in 1955, at age 16, holding "the weight and lives and hope of a nation on his shoulders."

Throughout discrete segments directed by Raoul Peck (Haiti's former Minister of Culture), Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin's text, which is interspersed with actual televised author interviews on the "Dick Cavett Show" (to whom he says, "I am not a nigger; I am a man"), a 1965 Cambridge University debate, and other clips. "Paying My Dues" chronicles Baldwin's return to Harlem from Paris, where he emigrated in 1948. He was never homesick, no desire for "ice cream and hot dogs and baseball ... which had passed out of me," but he missed his family, so "as a stranger, I was home."

"Heroes" recalls Baldwin's white female teacher who encouraged his love of arts and the theater. "The Power of Films" explains his fascination with white actresses while noting that no one resembling his father was represented in cinema. He felt "my countrymen were my enemy," so he wanted "film actors to take vengeance." He also realized the vilified and slaughtered Indians in Westerns were him.

"Witness" describes that Baldwin never became a Black Muslim or Panther, or an NAACP member, a group that was "fatally entangled with class distinctions." Baldwin's name was listed in an FBI security index as dangerous in 1966.

He observes that white people "were astounded" by the violence in Birmingham, but that Black people were not. Footage from 2014's Ferguson, MO, riots confirms that little has changed. "We weren't docile, just trying to stay alive. The nigger was never happy in his place. He has attacked the power structure of the Western world."

In "Purity," Baldwin says "the root of Black men is rage; the root of white men is bottomless terror."

In "Selling the Negro," he says, "Now that they don't need us for cotton, they want to kill us all off."

The Blu-ray features include "Q&A Session with Samuel L. Jackson" and with Peck, and a video photo gallery. The "Interview with Director Raoul Peck" notes that the work of Baldwin influenced his whole life and work, so it was "just a matter of time before I did a film with or about him," the person who became a preacher at 14, who grew up quickly under an abusive father, taking care of his younger brothers and sisters, eventually meeting "great people along his path."

"We didn't have a replacement for those leaders we lost in the 60s," he continues. Peck secured the rights to this book, access to all published and unpublished work, from Baldwin's estate and younger sister. It took him four years to learn how to deal with this project, using both narrative and documentary. She gave him the pages to "Remember This House," a typical Baldwin story connecting people and events and history and politics. "The story was there for me," Peck said, "as was how to reconstruct the entire body of work into the film."

Baldwin said he felt free only in battle, never in rest, and lived to be 63. None of his three subjects made 40. Evers was killed first, and had "a weariness, which he wore like a skin." And Black men continued to be murdered at an alarming rate, by any means necessary. Baldwin's words, which appeal to both educated and not, Peck says, continue to bear witness to this continuum.

Now as then, "all Western nations are caught in the lie of humanism. The West has no moral authority. They only care about profits."

"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America," Baldwin said. "It is not a pretty story. It will be bloody, hard."

"I Am Not Your Negro"




Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com