I Am Not Your Negro

Scott Wallace
11th Sep 2017

If it wouldn't have made distribution of the film nearly impossible, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro may have had a different "n-word" in its title. There is great vitriol in the film - centered around the unpublished writings of the great James Baldwin - as it takes a gaze (as steely and uncompromising as his) at the way representation in media, popular culture and language has subjugated black Americans.

Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin, reading from his writing and a series of letters he wrote in 1979 at the age of 55. The unfinished piece Remember This House was intended to elucidate the lives of three murdered revolutionaries: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Here, their lives and their relationships with Baldwin are only small components of an arresting and fascinating tapestry of the African-American psyche and its many facets.

What's most fascinating about I Am Not Your Negro is the way it takes snippets of events or popular culture, either long forgotten, iconic, or even from after Baldwin's death in 1987. Placed against the writer's fiery and heartfelt words, clips from John Ford's Stagecoach, Doris Day feel good fluff, or footage from 2014's unrest in Ferguson, Missouri take on a piercing significance.

Among this pastiche of white America's view of racial minorities are biographical details of Baldwin himself. Outspoken, devastatingly intelligent, gay, and politically unswerving, Baldwin was even being watched by the CIA. 

Director [NAME] has assembled the film with the kind of poetry that is highly reminiscent of Baldwin's writing. Archival footage and images are deployed in thoughtful ways, edited with an engaging and almost musical rhythm. Smartly, this is not a "cinematic" documentary, but one simply presented in service of the wordsmith at its centre.

In contrast to the fervour of Martin Luther King Jr or the righteous aggression of Malcolm X, with whom Baldwin made a TV appearance that appears here in intimate and urgent quietness, there is a tenderness and sadness to the way Baldwin speaks about his place in the USA. He indicts American society with a light touch - he speaks of rage, but does not express it in the way that others might.

Some might come away from this film wishing that more well-known figures of the still-happening civil rights movement had received more screen time, but arguably what makes I Am Not Your Negro special is that it resurrects the voice of an often unsung hero. When James Baldwin speaks the titular phrase, it sends a jolt through the system. Long before privilege and whiteness became ever-present words in our discourse on race, Baldwin was trying to dismantle the power structures that he saw so keenly through Western society's veneer of civility.

It's both saddening and galvanising to see how relevant Baldwin's words still are. 

I Am Not Your Negro opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday September 14th.