Through the progression of Raoul Peck's 2017 documentary, “I am Not Your Negro”, James Baldwin’s vision to capture the tensions and tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement is expanded.
In the film, we are given insight into how the lives and the deaths of three of the most influential and prolific figures of the Civil Rights Movement were shaped and then ultimately cut short by the racial dilemma of the United States.
In Baldwin’s words adapted, we see how Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X all approached predominantly white spaces and navigated social justice work as those who are being oppressed and systematically pushed to the margins.
I first saw the film at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Harlem with Naomi Jackson and some of my classmates. I was struck by intense feelings of duality. To see Baldwin’s reflections upon the racial climate of the 1960s correlate so flawlessly to the current moment was deeply disheartening.
In retrospect, I understand that the duality of despair and optimism are deeply intertwined regarding feelings toward social progress.
Before analyzing what the documentary does so well, I feel it is important to note the limited inclusion of a critical piece of Baldwin’s identity from the movie: his sexuality. Many that admire Baldwin wonder why Peck decided to select aspects of Baldwin’s reality to focus on, when all of who he was shaped his work and his dedication to justice.
I think that the documentary would be even richer if it were more truthful to Baldwin as a person and had not moved away from the layers of oppression that Baldwin had to wade through.
Baldwin tackles a wealth of critical questions that we as citizens and humans must answer pertaining to how we understand both ourselves and those who are different than us. In the beginning of the film, we see a news reporter interviewing Baldwin and the language that he uses regarding "how much better" life has become for black people in the U.S. However, the severe inequality and violence at the hands of white power is strikingly similar to what some people use today to avoid confronting white privilege.
It is that ignorance that is the most revolting aspect of the viewing and understanding of the documentary.
It is jarring to realize how little we have learned as a society from our own history and to be in such denial that we, at large, cannot recognize how the cycle of oppression functions. I am surprised that we can see so clearly and vividly how cruel those who opposed integration and true racial equality when we watch the tapes and see the photographs, but to those living in the period and who were perpetuating the abuse and exploitation of people of color, there was God by their side and the law to protect them.
The inability to see the lack of empathy, morality and basic human decency in oneself is dangerous and a threat that we are still facing today.
The film addresses the necessity for white people and people in power to question why they created a lesser, the language to name the lesser and then proceeded to dehumanize those deemed lesser for generations. The question of white responsibility is something that we are still grappling with today.
The documentary features images of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and we see how the murders of innocent young black men reflects the historical narrative of our country and white fears. We also can see how problematic it can become when a white person responds to the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”, so as to disregard the blatant inequality that still exists in the U.S. today from healthcare to education to food access.
I truly believe that the film does a brilliant job of addressing the bigger picture of the renaming of slavery and the consistent “othering” that occurs in the U.S. and has plagued our country since its birth.
Alongside music, movie clips and the periodical titles play essential roles in the documentary to capture how the art of a period can either accept and perpetuate or reject and attempt to change the social ideologies that are widely accepted by those possessing the most power. In the section titled “Paying My Dues”, we see Baldwin reflecting upon his choice to leave Europe to return to his home in the U.S. and to see his family.
He tells us that he did not miss nor long for anything that was decidedly or iconically American. Rather, he missed those he loved and felt a duty to work to reform the place that shaped him. In doing so, it could better serve those he loved, which it wronged every day.
Baldwin addresses even more complexities in the following sections, all of which are titled in direct correspondence to the content they address. In “Witness”, Baldwin begins to reflect on the three figures he so admired and their tireless work for black power. In the section, Baldwin also learns that the difference between a witness and an actor can be small, yet holds a tremendous influence.
Baldwin shows the various groups of black identities for which he did not belong and decided not to belong to, such as being a muslim, a black panther, a catholic or a member of the NAACP.
Baldwin saw that his responsibility to the movement was being a witness; to write the stories he saw around the country and to make sure that they could gain readership. The section also begins to unravel in a deeper way the role the white hand played in oppression and still does today with the images of young black children that were killed by white police brutality.
Baldwin explores the complexity of "passing" and the inability for white people to realize that their ancestors have more than likely both abused or loved black people before and personhood is not dictated by skin color.
The documentary accomplishes the vision of capturing how the lives of Malcolm, Medgar and Martin “bang against and reveal each other.” “I am Not Your Negro” illuminates the differences in belief regarding how best to reach black equality between Malcolm X and King. Baldwin notes how Evers passed the torch to both of these men who had to grapple with modes of resistance, safety and achieving a vision held by an entire people.
Baldwin also notes that King took on the work Malcolm X had done upon his assassination and that by the end of each of their short lives, these men held the same position.
Each of these men wanted to promote love and fairness in the U.S., which is something that it was supposed to promise all of its people, but it evidently did not. The statement, “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves” resonates so deeply with what Baldwin saw in his lifetime, but also with the current state of our country.
We see that the byproduct of segregation, mandated or intentional from the individual, is ignorance and that ignorance breeds fear.
Whether it was the white supremacists boycotting the integration of schools due to their fear of black intelligence and what might happen if "black" were to touch "white" or if it is those who seek out a place to raise their family that has a population that is 95 percent white or those who voted to elect a man who uses dog whistle rhetoric and seemingly did not know who Frederick Douglass was, it spoke volumes.
The cruelty of the criminalization of an entire race, police brutality against the race and giving the race limited access due to low socioeconomic status to things such as healthcare and food is detrimental to not only the marginalized, but also the ones exhibiting such cruelty.
Despite progress, these are the severe challenges that we still face today and we will continue to face if we do not truly hear and listen to Baldwin’s words.