Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

I Am Not Your Negro

Grade : A+ Year : 2016 Director : Raoul Peck Running Time : 1hr 33min Genre :
Movie review score

Quite simply, Raoul Park’s “I Am Not Your Negro” shook me hard. Based on an outline for an unfinished book by James Baldwin, Park’s film uses Baldwin, both his words (as recited by Samuel L. Jackson) and from archival footage, as our narrator through the history of racial unrest in America. His three benchmarks for this exploration are three Civil Rights leaders whom he knew, and outlived, from the 1960s- Medgar Evers (who was assassinated in 1963), Malcolm X (1965), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). Baldwin had lived in France for many years before coming to America during the height of the Civil Rights movement, so he had an interesting perspective on the time compared to Evers, Malcolm and King, but their message is one in the same. Baldwin’s proposed book was laid out in a 1979 letter to his literary agent, but he could never get past a 30-page outline. Maybe that was because, as Park shows here, the most important part of telling this story required images of not just the time it is set, but a more “oral history” approach that needed to include Baldwin’s voice, too. The result is one of the most formally-challenging, and historically vital, documentaries in many a year.

Images are what drive Park’s film. Images of Baldwin, with his distinctive voice and way of speaking, as we come to understand his worldview, and how he saw the Civil Rights movement. Images of King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, great leaders who were important to the cause, and also had very different perspectives on what the movement should be like. Images of the Watts riots, Black Panthers, the aftermath of lynching, the prejudice that came with desegregating the schools, readily available to us over the years, are nonetheless given a painful new perspective through Baldwin’s words. Images of movies, wherein the stereotypes of whites and blacks were codified, and then played into society for decades after, are important to the discussion of how deeply America’s racial divide is cracked after all these years. Even more than Baldwin’s words, “I Am Not Your Negro” gives us an indelible glimpse at America’s greatest sin, and how we have failed to move on from it, through images that should force us to look in the mirror, and realize we have to far to go before the work Baldwin and his contemporaries attempted is realized.

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