I Am Not Your Negro: History Revisited through a Personal Lens

Victor L. Schermer By

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I Am Not Your Negro
Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Raoul Peck
Distributor: Velvet Films

This electrifying docu-drama invoking the eloquent words and profound personal experience of the great writer James Baldwin brings to life the stormy and transformational period of the Civil Rights movement in a way that is far more vivid than the images many saw on their small TV screens in the 1960s. The images, sound track, Baldwin's words, the fast pace and unrelenting passion conjure up history in a way that few films achieve. The only question that remains after seeing I Am Not Your Negro is whether its somewhat forced point of view, that the issues for African Americans remain unchanged today, is valid. I don't mean to imply that the film isn't profound and meaningful, but rather to inquire more fully whether the nature of the racial divide is the same today as it was then. It is just as troubling, but it has mutated into something different.

Although jazz does not figure significantly in the film, jazz aficianados should take notice of it because Baldwin loved jazz, hung out with prominent musicians like Miles Davis, and wrote a critically praised short story, "Sonny's Blues," depicting the way in which becoming a jazz musician influenced a young black man and gave meaning to his life of suffering. Baldwin's biographer, David Leeming, noted the author's conviction "that the artist, especially the black artist, is a prophet of freedom, not only of freedom for his own race but of freedom for all those suffocating under the repressive blanket of emotional safety and innocence." Numerous jazz musicians took up that rallying cry, and jazz played a major role in desegregation and the Civil Rights movement. That part of history is not taken up in this film and really deserves a major documentary of its own.

Black Like Me

While Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were the central figures of the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin became its leading literary voice. His words, largely adapted from a book, Remember This House, of which Baldwin had completed only 30 pages before his death in 1987, and narrated beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, are searingly descriptive of what it feels like to be shamed, demeaned, and at risk to be killed when entering a school classroom, taking a seat in the front of a bus, or just walking down the street to buy a newspaper. We see examples of abuse that range from inhuman lynchings and brutal police beatings to the banal comments of a Yale professor telling Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show that he is making too much of the race card. We are told what it's like to bury your friends MLK and Malcolm X, not just as heroes but as those with whom you broke bread and shared confidences. Baldwin's words, and his voice and demeanor in the video and film clips, are Shakespearean in their eloquence, their literary control being as soul-shattering as the grief and tears that lie just below the surface.

Everything Changes but Everything Remains the Same

The film tries to make Baldwin's profound statements an object lesson for today's police shootings and other injustices that continue to be heaped on African Americans -and we would add, Muslims and Mexican immigrants. It almost gets there, showing Trayvon Martin's and other recent victims' incidents and faces, and drawing parallels between then and now. But it downplays the enormous progress that was brought about by the Civil Rights movement and for which Baldwin deserves part of the credit. American apartheid was dealt a tremendous blow. We have just seen our first African American president through two terms of office, and there is much less segregation in offices, sports, education, business, and entertainment. The very serious problems that remain are racial profiling, de-facto segregation of communities, and the large populations living in ghettos below the poverty line in conditions that engender hopelessness and rage. Interestingly, the current situation for blacks is similar to that of European Jewry before the Nazis. Many had assimilated with success into the general population, while others remained isolated and impoverished within their own subculture. And, like today, extremist movements and unbridled nationalism posed a constant threat that eventually became the Holocaust. Hopefully something as horrific won't happen in our culture, but at times it appears that only the vigilance of the world will prevent rampant injustices of one kind or another.

The Underbelly of Dominance-Submission in America

I Am Not Your Negro does much better ideologically when it points to an underlying horrific American reality that still threatens to burst forth. It is the fact that our country was built not only on the basis of the Age of Reason, high ideals, inalienable rights, and constitutional law. It was also built on brutal slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the mistreatment and massacre of countless unnamed workers of the industrial revolution. The film hints at but does not fully develop a point made by Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, and other African American intellectuals that our culture, like so many other civilizations before and now, suffers from an underbelly of violence and hatred of differences that will always threaten to resurface in one form or another until we face it squarely, feel the shame of it, and heal the hatred bred by the dominance of one group by another. That is not playing the "race card." It is the real lesson I took from this film and which I think James Baldwin communicated to us, but that we have yet to heed. It is the lesson that Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues." and a century of jazz music teaches us.
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