By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
A documentary based on the unfinished work by the iconic civil rights activist and author James Baldwin will hit theaters soon, and I say it is right on time—given the political climate in America.
“I am Not Your Negro” is a documentary about Baldwin, which is filled with footage—some never before seen—about the civil rights movement. Before his death in 1987, Baldwin had been working on a piece that would look at the lens of racism as it related to the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. While Baldwin never finished the piece, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck took up the mantle and presents this film, using actor Samuel L. Jackson as the narrator, which is not only visually appealing with its footage and vintage video of Baldwin, but awe-inspiring for the message that it gives.
But the title alone should be enough to get butts in the theatre, no matter how far you would have to go to enjoy a screening.
The documentary shows Baldwin coming back to the United States to New York from his then-home in France to report on the state of Black America. In one explosive interview—in only the way that Baldwin could deliver—talk show host Dick Cavett questions Baldwin in 1968 about why Negroes aren’t optimistic, even with the progress that had been made in the Black community. This so-called progress came in the guise of Negro mayors, athletes and even in television commercials. Baldwin deflects the “Negro” question, saying that it doesn’t matter what the Negro has done up to that point, it matters more about what was going to happen to this country. That statement then is even more relevant now, on the heels of a Trump presidency.
Now, many people have different interpretations of the title, and I’ve even read posts where people are replacing the word Negro with the “N” word. I don’t see it that way. I see it as Baldwin saying, “Don’t ask me to be the mouthpiece for the entire Black race.” The word colored was popular during this time, and Cavett’s use of Negro may have been a way for the iconic talk show host to appear forward-thinking.
Further, in the film, which has been pegged as one of the best of 2016, Baldwin highlights contradictions in what America says and what the dominate culture actually does.
There are explosive scenes of Dr. King being attacked in Marquette Park in 1966, Blacks being pummeled with water hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, as well as noteworthy Black cinema like “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Imitation of Life.” We see a bit of the Jerry Springer show and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement. These images show the importance of the role that Hollywood and media plays in portraying Black life.
The movie has been described as telling the “not so pretty story about the Negro in America,” and one audience member at the film festival not only agrees that the story isn’t pretty, but that Baldwin never pulled punches in telling the story.
According to Birmingham native and North Sider Belinda Silber: “Every time you would see Baldwin on the screen with some white elite liberal you knew that he or she was going to be in trouble. They would ask their questions and expect a ‘kumbaya’ moment, where both parties would display a sheepish grin, as if all was right with the world, but Baldwin always responded with blistering truth with eloquence while posing like a dandy with his ever present cigarette.”
She continued: “‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a film that shows you that he [Baldwin] was the griot, the keeper of truth and knowledge and that he would not cower or be silenced. When observing the faces of the other guests on the talk shows, they would exhibit fear, though still smiling. Baldwin was not tricked or fooled, because not only was he not your Negro, he was not your Black friend. It’s wonderful to hear Baldwin in his own words and see the man. His words were as powerful as his persona. People often use the expression that someone is ‘lit,’ well Baldwin is the fire.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” was released nationally on February 3. Check your local listings for more information.