‘I Am Not Your Negro’ shines the right light on racism

I Am Not Your Negro shines the right light on racism

Katie Whaley

Through intimate video clips, explicit images and powerful narration, the film I Am Not Your Negro finally addresses the elephant in the room, finally addresses racism in America, the way it should have been done before. Truthfully and personally.
The documentary tells the reality of racism during the civil rights movement through the personal account of author James Baldwin, respectively, and his unfinished book Remember this House. In his work, Baldwin describes his close friendships and the assassinations of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and goes in depth on what it meant to be an African-American of that time.
His account is breathtaking. Voice-overs of his manuscript, of his struggle and the struggle of other African-Americans, weave the hard-hitting theme together with Baldwin’s intimate experience, creating this harmonious combination of atrocity and empathy. And it feels personal. Unlike other documentaries, there are no “talking heads” or professionals describing events and the people involved from a secondhand perspective. It’s just Baldwin’s incredible novelty and real-life footage.
Sugar-coating does not exist in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Everything, from video clips of beatings, to pictures of hung victims, to up close footage of violent protests, appears on screen. It never shies away from showing and describing the brutalities of the time, some of which I was unaware of because I’ve never been exposed to what happened in the civil rights movement beyond the speeches and the marching. The documentary tells the full, raw story of the life of an African-American during the ‘60s, sparing no details.
The film, however, balances out the scenes of violence and animosity with clips of New York City life and views of nature taken from inside of a moving car. During these scenes, the narrator speaks passionately about the events occurring around Baldwin and his view on the matters.
It feels as if Samuel L. Jackson, the voice of Baldwin’s narrative, plucks viewers from their daily lives and takes a leisurely drive with them, sharing his anecdote as if he were an old friend. Moments like these, moments where films invite viewers into the story as mature, understanding people and not as uneducated audiences, those are the kind of moments that all documentaries should strive to have, and I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO achieves this beautifully.
The only possible downside to the film is how overwhelming it can get. In the beginning, it’s alarming how quickly everything moves, as the movie is told through clip after clip without rest. Obtaining so much information in such little time, and that information being very complicated, is difficult to grasp, at first. It takes getting used to. But, at the same time, nothing drags on or becomes boring. The active procession of videos keeps the movie fresh and compelling.
In all, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is a spectacular, one-of-a-kind film. Its richness in undivulged history coupled with Baldwin’s genius and firsthand storytelling makes this masterpiece a must-see.
Have you seen I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO? What are your thoughts?