Monday, October 3, 2016
NYFF Review: Why James Baldwin's I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO Matters Right Now
It's a question we're always asking: who is today's Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, or Angela Davis? Who is the rebel rouser, bringing attention to racial and social injustice in a way that attracts large congregations and organizes major movements? The short answer is, there truly is no one today who compares to that level of influence and power. And this realization has only forced us to recall great leaders of justice who were able to pointedly define the intricacies of inequality that are validating to hear yet uncomfortable for so many.
Which is why director Raoul Peck's (Sometimes in April) I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, featured at the New York Film Festival this month, is so relevant right now. James Baldwin (1924-1987), prolific author, playwright, and racial justice warrior was bold, outspoken, and sick and tired of being sick and tired of the racist acts and casual prejudices against the black community. Sadly, all of those same issues persist today. So to hear the words of James Baldwin (taken in parts from his unfinished manuscript to literary agent Jay Acton and other poetry, essays, and novels he'd written, narrated by none other than Samuel L. Jackson) retold in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, it takes on a whole new resonance. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO traces the modern narrative of black oppression in entertainment, politics, and education all the way back to early images of people of color in John Wayne movies, King Kong, Chiquita banana commercials, and Doris Day and Fred Astaire films (a duo Baldwin found particularly grotesque).
But, as Baldwin himself states in this documentary, he was not an angry black man (a commonly misunderstood fact that intimidated so many people that the FBI felt the need to put him on a watch list). And he was not a racist; he did not hate white people. This specific testament is also perpetuated by the modern day notion that racial pride and expressing frustrations about the oppression of your community is synonymous with hatred against white people. We see this in today's media narrative about recent protests against police brutality, the negative response against the hashtag #BlackGirlsRock, and even with Beyonce's "Formation." So yeah, we're still living with the same level of discrimination and white fear that was pervasive during Baldwin's time.
With I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, Peck recounts Baldwin's narrative through the lens of his relationships with three key symbols of the movement: Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.--three activists who were assassinated for standing up for their rights. Interwoven within that narrative are photos and footage of those who have been killed during the #BlackLivesMatter era, including Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland, and a particularly interesting segment on the relationship between Baldwin and fellow playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun). The two friends bonded over their work and how it responded to the sociopolitical climate. Amid Baldwin's lectures and media interviews, roundtable discussions like this one also featuring actor/activist Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando, Baldwin invited Hansberry to join him in a meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 to discuss race relations in America.
What is consistent throughout Baldwin's narrative in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is his exhaustion over talking about the same issues over and over and his conflict with the country in which he lived--loving a nation and its people so dearly, but having that love unreciprocated. So much so that he left the country for Paris and London during certain points of his life. This fatigue has only swollen in today's congested digital age, though the significance of the issues remains. But we can always count on the words of one of our most important writers to illuminate our most profound concerns and be an eternal advocate, as this documentary so eloquently reminds us.
Rating: A (**** out of *****)