‘I Am Not Your Negro’ turns an unfinished manuscript into a fiery indictment of race relations in the United States

James Baldwin and Medger Evers

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin

It has been almost 40 years since the late James Baldwin wrote to his literary agent about his next project.  It was to be titled Remember This House and would tell the story of the lives and murders of three men; Medger Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Baldwin died eight years later, in 1987, he had completed only 30 pages of the planned tome.  Thankfully the Baldwin estate was aware of the talents of director Raoul Peck (Murder in Pacot, Lumumba) and gave him access to the writer’s archives.

The result is a 95 minute mixture of the author’s own written words, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in a world-weary way that heightens their message and brilliance; along with video of the author in a number of public appearances speaking articulately and passionately about how there has been so little real progress in race relations in this nation.  Peck also uses scenes from motion pictures to drive home the message of Baldwin’s written and spoken words, and one example is particularly compelling.

In the 1958 film The Defiant Ones (do you need a spoiler alert for a film nearly six decades after its release?), Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are escaped prisoners who are trying to hop aboard a train.  When Curtis cannot make it onto the train, Poitier refuses to leave him behind and jumps from the train.  Baldwin’s commentary on how differently white audiences reacted to the scene than black audiences did shows it to be a perfect example of how one’s origins change one’s perspectives.

Peck also uses still images and video of current events like those involving Trayvon Martin’s murder, what happened in Ferguson, MO and more.  These further illustrate how little things have changed when shown as the words of James Baldwin from more than three decades ago speak volumes about the events of the here and now.  It is almost as if the writer was shown what would transpire long after cancer took him from us, far too soon.

Baldwin’s own memories of Medger Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. King would have made an incredible book had he been able to finish it during his own lifetime.  Peck was wise enough to realize that there is no one who could take on the daunting task of completing that book, which is why the movie works so well.  He did not try to take on that impossible mission, but rather used the author’s words to make the audience see just how little real change has taken place.  That so many simply do not understand why the #BlackLivesMatter movement exists is proof of that lack of change.

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