MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Magnolia Pictures
On DVD and Blu-Ray, Video on Demand, iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Fandango Now and VUDU.
Directed by Raoul Peck. Documentary Rated PG-13
At the time of his death, American author James Baldwin was in the process of writing Remember This House, a memoir about his personal relationship with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, all civil rights leaders who lost their lives during the 1960s. Director Raoul Peck has actor Samuel L. Jackson read from the unfinished manuscript as the narration for I Am Not Your Negro. The film also includes archival footage of Baldwin speaking for himself on television programs, lectures, and debates.
The film covers approximately the years of Baldwin’s too-brief life from 1924-1978, but does not follow a strict chronology or even tell his biography. What it does present is James Baldwin’s remarkable voice and literary brilliance. Baldwin emigrated to Paris in 1948 at the age of 24, where he was accepted as a leading intellectual, free from the oppression and racism he encountered in New York. He continued to write and thrive in France, but returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 (two years after the Montgomery bus boycott) to identify with the civil rights movement. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Although I Am Not Your Negro is only 90 minutes long, it seems much longer due to the richness of its images, sound bites, and ideas. As Baldwin shares a memory of childhood, recalls a movie that he saw years ago, or remembers a deep friendship, we view film clips, newsreel footage, and still photographs. At times the subdued and dignified voice of Samuel L Jackson, combined with the dreamlike structure of the editing, takes the viewer into interesting and unexpected places.
There are a few stumbles along the way. As Baldwin tells us of his return to New York in the 1950s, the screen shows us current images of Times Square (this simply does not make narrative sense). In an intentional move to connect the archival material to recent incidents such as the Ferguson, Missouri uprising and the Black Lives Matter movement, Director Peck integrates more recent scenes of brutality and protest into the film. I sensed his moral outrage and passion, but felt that this decision underestimated the audience’s ability to make their own connections between the present and the past.
It is humbling to realize that our nation’s conversation on race still faces incredible impediments, setbacks, and roadblocks. This film reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X approached civil rights with different strategies, but came close to understanding one another at the time of their deaths. James Baldwin’s voice was measured, thoughtful, and honest. Although he would leave the Christian church in midlife (due to its complicity with racism and injustice), he nevertheless remained a compassionate humanitarian, a citizen of the world whose voice still has much to say to all of us.
Five halos: A moving and thoughtful meditation on race.
Four pitchforks: Scenes of violence and death; the briefest glimpse of nudity; strong racist epithets.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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