February 24, 2017
“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
James Baldwin (“Black English: A Dishonest Argument”, 1980, as quoted in I Am Not Your Negro)
Raoul Peck’s filmmaking approach in I Am Not Your Negro, affords us the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the dynamism of James Baldwin’s thinking. Our times call on us to take up the critical task of ruthlessly analyzing our economic, social, and political conditions, not only as a way of understanding them, but as a way of changing them and ourselves. Baldwin and Peck each depict this process, in different ways, as messy confrontations and contestations of oppression and struggle that make up history itself. The ways they decipher and deconstruct the periods in which they live offer us a useful methodology. Baldwin and Peck’s approaches and their critical elaborations, their contestation of social, political, and economic terrain, recall how Frantz Fanon uplifts the revolutionary potential of radical cultural engagement: “By imparting new meaning and dynamism to artisanship, dance, music, literature, and the oral epic, the colonized subject restructures his own perception. The world no longer seems doomed.” (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961)
Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, takes up the dangling threads of an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the lives, politics, struggles, and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin’s previously unheard and unread words are brought to life through a vocal performance by Samuel L. Jackson and woven together with historical footage of Baldwin, Malcolm, King, and Evers, with moving and still images of US cultural life (commercials, TV shows, state and business propaganda films, etc.) and political struggles of the 20th century. The text of some of Baldwin’s letters appear on screen for us to read, as does the text from FBI counterintelligence reports on Baldwin’s movements, politics, and sexuality. I Am Not Your Negro also lingers on scenes from a dozen or so other films, as Baldwin’s words in Jackson’s voice offer scathing criticism and insight. Contemporary footage and images from our time are interspersed through the film and offset by some comment from Baldwin or a film or TV segment from the 1950s or 60s. This contemporary footage almost exclusively depicts the violence of policing and police repression of uprisings, from Los Angeles to Ferguson.
The film charts Baldwin’s attempts to energize the lives and contradictions of Evers, Malcolm, and King:
I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as, in truth, they did…and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives. (as quoted in I Am Not Your Negro)