REVIEW: Finishing James Baldwin’s incomplete sentences in pitch-perfect ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

We all know that James Baldwin was a very impeccable man. A man of poise and substance, with just the right amount of righteousness and attitude. His voice and opinions were often heard through his novels, plays, and poems, but mostly felt through his lectures and on air debates and conversations. For some of us, we were not around during his timeline of life. We are only able to read his books and YouTube his lectures-that is until now. ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a bold new documentary directed by Raoul Peck. Raoul Peck did an amazing job bringing the words to life from Baldwin’s final and unfinished novel Remember This House.

When Baldwin died in December 1987, he had only completed 30 pages of Remember This House, which spoke on the lives and untimely deaths of his three civil rights activists he also counted as friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thirty pages were not enough to make a novel, but the brilliant paragraphs are the genesis of the — frankly much-needed and long-overdue – documentary that expands on Baldwin’s thoughts.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a time machine, taking viewers as far back as the 1920s before bringing us back to current day. There are eerie similarities of today’s struggles and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the recent presidential election to the civil rights era, both of which are painted with black blood into a undeniably amazing portrait.

Samuel L. Jackson is such an adept narrator that one would think it was James Baldwin himself. (Honestly, I didn’t know it was Jackson until the very end.) Through rare footage of Baldwin — in universities speaking, riding around in cars, walking streets, voicing his opinions of racism, on The Dick Cavett Show — you feel so in touch with him that you’re emotionally engulfed into the mind of the man and the heart of the movement. Videos of bus boycotts and black children spit on trying to get an education are interspersed with footage of Rodney King, the Ferguson uprising, images of Travon Martin, and Barack Obama. Even in his final days 30 years ago, Baldwin speaks to us with urgency for the here and now.

Baldwin is captured not only as an amazing poet and pioneer of literature, but also as a prophet in his own right. His views and raw truth pierce your eyes and ears with quotes, photos, and stories that will last with you for lifetimes. This film’s visual brilliance is just what is needed to bring an uncomfortable conversation to the front of the room, not just for black people, but for everyone.

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Baldwin is often said to have lived before his time, speaking candidly on race, homosexuality and the American identity well before it was in vogue. Somehow, this film is bigger than the man behind the words. The film is an opening for feelings to flow and conversations to begin. The beauty behind words is they never die and it is apparent that recollections of old events are needed to bind us to our history for a more current cause.

Baldwin refers to himself simply as a “witness” as he reported from the background in extreme detailed. A witness of death, confusion, anger, unjustness, but also a witness of people, the world, strength, and beauty in the darkest times. He analyzed everything and any conclusion he came to regarding social issues was always backed by an experience and a lesson. Baldwin had no shame in breaking down his thought process- even if it was in a room filled with white college students.

Under the direction of Raoul Peck with the amazing edits from Alexandra Strauss, the timing of I Am Not Your Negro couldn’t be better, at a time where the black community needs to be reminded of unity, and other races and cultures can gain some understanding for the people of the black community. This illustration of our fight and continuous struggle is a beautiful articulation of where we were and where we are.  I’d like to think that this film is a small step in the right direction of change. 

"I Am Not Your Negro" opens at the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor today. For a complete list of showtimes, click here

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