There are quite a few films coming out about race in America right now. Although quite a few of them are really good, and very moving, I think this is perhaps the most powerful, intense and confronting of them all. I walked out of the cinema feeling a bit emotional and shaken. And that’s exactly as it should be.
I Am Not Your Negro was one of the nominees this year for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category. Narrated by the warm tones of Samuel L Jackson, it is based on an unpublished and unfinished book written by James Baldwin, about race in America, the civil rights movement, and most importantly his memories of three men who were leaders of the movement: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Three men who were assassinated for their belief in rights for black citizens.
Stylistically, the film feels more like a visual poem than a usual documentary. The voice over narrates the pages that Baldwin wrote, and puncuates them with supporting visuals. These are broken up into loose chapters or sections with words played across the screen in black and white to delineate them. It makes for an interesting flow through the narrative, and also creates points of argument, as though making a case. Look at this here, and this, and this…
The visuals themselves are an interesting mix. Baldwin died in 1987, so his words were written before that. We can literally see how much has changed, and tragically how much hasn’t. The film shows interviews, photographs and footage of the three men and the author, as well as events of the time, but it also shows us today. The beating of slaves and the beating of Rodney King are both here. Baldwin did not live to see a black president of America, but he thought about it, spoke about it.
It’s a film that puts it all together in ways that are not comfortable. There is a long history of violence, and this is the experience of the people who live under that history. While it might be easier to shake our heads and be saddened by the events in Ferguson, it’s not isolated, it’s part of a larger whole, a story that has been brushed under the rug and minimised for too long. Baldwin at one point speaks about the way that a white person cannot really know how it feels to be black, to live in Harlem, or to live in real fear. Although these stories are told more often today, this is still the case. This film is very eye opening in that sense.
And as a film reviewer, it made some interesting points about films, and the representation of black people in films. In the past, they were Uncle Tom or caricatures, people who were lazy, fearful, stupid or the enemy, the savage. What came later personified something else, the black person as friend, which neatly avoided any aggression towards the white population, and therefore also suggested that what had occurred had not been all that bad since it was forgiveable. The white characters are still not personified as the bad guys. The film makes the point that there is nothing more threatening to the American status quo than the idea of an empowered and enraged black person. Perhaps this is changing. Films like Get Out have a black protagonist and a sinister white regime as the bad guy, but this film feels quite rare in it’s set up, and has caused a lot of debate.
Baldwin has a beautiful way with words, earnest, passionate and poetic, it’s a real shame that his book was never completed and published, though I think that he would have revelled in the power of this film, and it’s uncompromising challenge. The violence and aggression in this film is shocking and shameful. It’s a tragic film, you have to be prepared to see men cut down in their prime, sons and daughters weeping at the coffins of their parents, watching them be buried way before their time. Women spat on and beaten by men who call themselves gentlemen. And proud men posing with the dead like their corpses are trophies. But in all this ugliness, there is somehow still a lot of beauty, in the faces of survivors, in the words and acts of courage of the three men, and for me, most of all, in the indomitable spirit of a black girl who walked alone into a desegregated school to attend classes, even though she was spat on and jeered at.
Perhaps this is what makes the film so powerful, that it’s not just forcing the acknowledgement of history, but also the everyday heroism of the people who survived it. Who still survive it.
Director Raoul Peck is at The Ritzy Cinema this Thursday
Book your tickets now!