Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is a highly confrontational, discomforting testament to the truth of Black existences in North America. The movie challenges the viewer (as James Baldwin did repeatedly) to face the comfortable distortions that white America places on its historical narrative. Peck's team had the good fortune of gaining active involvement from Baldwin's younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, for the film, who is entrusted with his estate. TIFF recently held a screening and panel discussion about the film featuring Huda Hassan, George Elliott Clarke, and Shad, moderated by Camron Bailey. While Peck's film is truly excellent, much of the credit lays with the script it relies on.
I had the opportunity to discuss the film with a colleague, Ashley Marshall, a professor of communications at Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. As a Black, mixed-class woman, she agreed to co-author a review of Peck’s work and offer insight into her much more personal interpretation of the impact this film leaves on audiences. Her analyses are the italicized sections of the following review.
A shocking film
The best way I can describe this collage is sublime. Sitting in the darkened theatre, seeing the black and white imagery of hanging Black bodies evoked the refrain “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/blood on the leaves” to beat in my mind over and over. Time added no dissonance to this imagery as the documentary unfolded. This is a heart wrenching, graphic, triggering documentary, one that had me in tears for a majority of the experience. This is not entertainment; it is education, ideology. It is completely necessary and wholly contemporary. While I recommend that everyone familiarize themself with Baldwin, I suggest doing so by reading his work or witnessing his interviews before absorbing this film. Rather, before this film absorbs you.
There is no escaping the litany of painful visuals and lineage of legalized murder. This film shook me, someone who has taught Baldwin at the university level, because of its unapologetic honesty, the type of truth that makes its self a nest out of one’s memory having carved its way in. This mixture, and contrast at times, of beauty and terror left me feeling simultaneously full and empty. Raoul’s work, the flesh on the bones Baldwin left for us, unfolded as elevated film-noir: an effectively pessimistic style juxtaposed well to Baldwin’s commitment to optimism.
Baldwin's politics shine
I Am Not Your Negro is adapted from “Remember This House,” a 30 page manuscript that James Baldwin began but never finished, centering around three civil rights era icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. In doing this, the film is focused and has an air of authenticity. There is very little punditry or speculation about the type of person Baldwin was, his personal life, or his behaviour. This is a welcome point for a political film centering around one person. Trivialities such as sleep habits, favourite foods or music are often used in this genre to manipulate the viewer into a false sense of intimacy with the subject. This is a regular tactic of liberal filmmakers who can afford to revere radicals or civil rights icons from a distance without engaging meaningfully with their philosophy. Peck leans on Baldwin's writing, not filmmakers' parlour tricks.
Baldwin’s – like Raoul’s – point is black and white: I am not your negro. I am convinced that this film is for a non-Black audience. As a Black person, I found the images traumatizing; blunt force trauma, the kind of pain that incites cognitive self-defence. This film has white people as the implied audiences, particularly those "who think they are white" (to quote Coates, who is brilliantly influenced by Baldwin). This is genius because, as much as it evokes agony for Black viewers, it also chisels sanctuary for us. We are assured that this is our reality to be aware of and navigate through, but it is not our problem to fix. We are not the problem, but the bodies that have been bent and broken grotesquely, made legible as something for ugliness and evil to be affixed.
I Am Not Your Negro is not, strictly speaking, a biopic. Baldwin is presented first hand through video clips from speeches and interviews, as well as the actual manuscript, which is closely followed. The weighty narration is delivered by Samuel L. Jackson, which one of the panellists at the TIFF screening said, “might have been his best performance in a long time.” Baldwin's elegant, simple indictments of American white supremacy disturbed the full-capacity theatre into silence countless times. Peck had the good sense to keep these moments quiet, with no score or noise otherwise.
Ostensibly, the intended audience is white because of the problematic (and political) remix of Baldwin's original quotation, which is "I am not your nigger." This conflation inspires conflict. The respectability politics implicit in this edit are complex and worthy of consideration outside of this review. What I will say on this note is that “negro” is neither as blunt nor as piercing as the word “nigger,” which is productively uncomfortable. Contemporary white audiences need to struggle with this word in order to understand its weight. “Negro” is a distracting safety net, one that hasn’t been cast for the sake of Black safety, but for white. I don’t like the term either, and seeing it publicly would bother me, it’s true. But no more than being called and treated as such a word on a daily basis. The discomfort should not be mine alone. It is most obvious that white people, specifically those who think are white, are his audience as Baldwin coolly asserts that white people created the nigger, and he gives their problem back to them, self-assuredly, as a man whose body belongs to him. It is for white America to figure out why they needed a nigger in the first place. The future of America depends on it. When people are still being killed, under the verbiage of “get out of my country,” it is quite plain that the future of America depends on it.
Two Americas, worlds apart
The film does not only go after easy-target conservatives and Civil Rights Movement opponents, but also white liberals who sympathize with the struggle against racism as an accessory. At one point viewers are presented with clips from The Defiant Ones, a popular 1950s film directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. In this clip, a Black and a white convict, chained together, are fighting outside during their prison stint. They later escape together and attempt to board a moving train. The Black man gets on successfully, watching the white man unable to catch up and grab his extended hand. Eventually the Black man sacrifices his freedom and reluctantly chooses to jump off, rolling together with the white convict in the dust and grass. Baldwin says, in this moment, white liberals were relieved: strategically depicting Poitier to have chosen to jump off the train adds a sense of security for white audiences by letting them know that they are not hated. On the other hand, the Black people watching this scene were furious.
It is these types of incisive and intelligible observations that Baldwin makes that are wedded well with Peck's choice of archive clips. Peck is trying to demonstrate what Baldwin was getting at. The experience of a Black person in America, in even simple American pastimes such as movie going, is worlds apart from the white experience. There is of course the presentation of Evers, King, and Malcolm X throughout as Baldwin wrote about them, however the film truly feels larger than the men themselves or even their turbulent decade. Still, Baldwin's adoration of the three of them comes through, especially Malcolm X, who he sparred with intellectually.
Such intellectual disagreement creates space for me to focus my critique on a specific scene toward the end of the film: a montage of American political figures who utter a hollow “I’m sorry.” Missing from this medley is Barack Obama. Although a Black man, a Black president no less, he is not excused from the injustices he deliberately remained neutral to as they disproportionately affected Black America. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, “it is exactly for moments like these that Black people put Obama in the White House.” To homogenize him into Blackness at this point of the film is to anesthetize class and power out of this political conversation, which is an obvious impossibility. Obama, as complex as his presidency has been for Black people, is not granted retreat into the amnesia of some fulfilled American or “post-racial” dream. Although this film is not “for us,” there is still work for us to do.
Accordingly, when Baldwin asserts “I am not your nigger,” he means that he is not a nigger at all; he cannot be something that does not exist. Unlearning how to interpret Black skin is not a project for Black-skinned people, and so the thesis of this film is not for us. We do have to develop finer tuned lenses for which to critique white institutions, even if they are filled with or headed by Black people. Power needs to be applied equitably, focusing on community, and higher standards for those who are systematically, legally, treated as disposable, existing within a replicable design never destined to end.
Anti-Black state aggression today
Millions of people agree that Black people are to this day mistreated by state institutions and popular culture. It is another thing entirely to present such an audience with actual images of violent white supremacy. Peck regularly shows photographs and video of lynchings and protests against Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. One series of photographs documents a Black 15 year old girl walking to school being spat at and yelled at by a white mob, many of them her age, and even her classmates. In a particularly heinous display of white liberal cowardice, we are treated to the famous Baldwin-Kennedy meeting. Then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy met with Baldwin and his entourage, including Lorraine Hansberry, who urged that Kennedy should walk the young girl to school. Baldwin said that this moral symbolism, and the association of America as a whole with desegregation, was significant. This gesture would have required no legislative effort and likely would have saved thousands of other young black students from harassment or worse. Kennedy was unable to take even this minor action.
Peck should be commended for robbing modern audiences from dozing back into the “but we know better now” mentality. The scenes of lynchings and brutal beatings are not exclusive to the past. Contemporary assaults on Black people by the police from Rodney King through to today are included. Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and many others are shown as a reminder that this is a huge problem in our contemporary moment.
Perhaps the most horrifying scenes of state violence to a non-Black observer is the warzone-like deployment in response to protests in Ferguson in 2015. Police armed with heavy assault gear and weapons move through the city as an aggressive swarm, firing on demonstrators at will. They are clad head to toe in military gear and drive armoured vehicles with mounted weapons. This is both a physical and a psychological assault. In flexing their security apparatus the state implicitly warns those who would ally themselves with the oppressed that if they choose to do so, they will be treated like the oppressed. As hip-hop artist, Killer Mike, says in “DDFN,” “cops in the ghetto, they move like the Gestapo.” Acting as an occupying force, the “warrior cops” (as Radley Balko calls them) intimidate both the people around them and sympathetic onlookers across the world. The citizenry is treated as an enemy.
Peck's inclusion of many scenes of militarized police assaults on Black communities in recent years ties well into the overall themes of the film. The Black experience is uniquely painful, mild anxiety punctuated by moments of real danger. This is something non-Black observers cannot truly ever understand, which is why it is so crucial that the movie rely heavily on Baldwin and his compatriots. Peck and Baldwin stretch together over three generations of struggle and point at us forcefully, saying, “This is reality. This is where you live. Confront it.”
The struggle continues
Samuel Jackson is velvet. The script is lace. The chapters are pointed. And the nuance is timely. This is a highly important, highly impactful, high quality tapestry of critique and consideration, one that amplifies the mythical ethos upon which the current global value(s) system has been constructed. Relying on the brilliance of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor once more, she aptly writes that white supremacy
“In its original iteration was intended to remove Black (people) from political power, without which they would be more vulnerable to economic coercion. Above all, ‘white supremacy did not mean that whites were to be supreme.’ Instead, it was a political strategy intended to manipulate racial fears as a means of maintaining class rule for the landed elite of the cotton-rich Black Belt. White supremacy has historically existed to marginalize Black influence in social, political, and economic spheres while also obscuring major differences in experience in the social, political and economic spheres among white people. Like slavery, this was necessary to maximize productivity and profitability while dulling the otherwise sharp antagonisms between the richest and poorest white men.”
Thirty years after the death of James Baldwin, Taylor, like Peck, shows how timeless Baldwin’s project is. As the promotional banner implies, I am Not your Negro takes a voyeuristic look into popular white supremacist phenomena and challenges the idea of divisions along racial lines, and instead implores one race to introspectively assess their own constructions and consequences. Taylor has provided a clear response to the purpose the negro was created, and the utility of racial obfuscation, which is to protect ruling-class interests. Again, it is not enough for Black audiences to understand the construction and proliferation of such manufactured differences. It is the task of white people to make clear the purpose of the deliberate obscurity of their experiences, and to form solidarities with working-class identities. Imagining a different world relies on it.
Baldwin's iconoclasm begins the deconstruction work of white supremacy as a capitalist ideology, which is a necessary first step. Baldwin’s words still sing to me as he says “Part of my responsibility as a witness was to move as large and as freely as possible, to write the story, and to let it out.” This is the chorus of the film, repeated in different ways and layered throughout the contemporaries who have roots in Baldwin’s theory (Coates and Taylor included). Ending the film with Kendrick Lamar’s The Blacker the Berry, The Sweeter the Juice was the perfect trumpet for Black audiences to feel energized and heard, and hopefully leave white audiences productively confused, curious, and challenged.
I Am Not Your Negro is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox http://www.tiff.net/films/i-am-not-your-negro/