Rarely is a documentary so poetically socially conscious. Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is about James Baldwin (1924-1987) and drawn from his unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.” Baldwin contemplates the murders of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Evers (1925-1963) was born and raised in Mississippi. A World War II vet and college graduate (Alcorn State University), he was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and worked toward getting African Americans admitted to the University of Mississippi. He was murdered by White Citizens’ Council member Bryon de la Beckwith who wasn’t convicted until 1994, based on new evidence. Evers’ brother, Charles, became the first African-American mayor (Fayette) in the post-Reconstruction era Mississippi.
Malcolm X (1925-1965) was born in Omaha, Nebraska as the fourth of seven children. After drifting around, he ended up in Boston and was arrested and imprisoned for larceny and breaking and entering. In prison, he was introduced to the Nation of Islam. Upon release, Malcolm X became prominent in the Nation of Islam before breaking from it in 1964. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted of his assassination. Baldwin learned about his death while in London.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia (15 January 1929) and died in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April 1968. King led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (1 December 1955). During the 385-day boycott, King’s house was bombed and he was arrested. It was in another state, Alabama, and another city, that King was arrested for the 13th time and wrote “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” (16 April 1963). Later that year, in August, King was one of the leaders of the March on Washington and he gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. After that, he would be involved in the Selma voting rights movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches.
Baldwin was born in Harlem (2 August 1924) and died in France (1 December 1987). Although older than Evers, Malcolm and King, he outlived them all. Baldwin wasn’t a comfortable fit for the Civil Rights Movement which during the 1950s and 1960s didn’t include homosexuals. Baldwin’s 1957 short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” is often used in introductory literary anthologies for college courses.
In the documentary, we see archival footage of Baldwin talking about race, about Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. We also see archival photos and videos of the threesome. Baldwin made the book proposal for “Remember This House” in 1979, more than a decade after King’s death. It was meant to be a personal account of his friendships, but when Baldwin died in 1987, he had only finished 30 pages.
Peck incorporates the knowable–images from the lifespan of Baldwin, and the unknowable–the first African-American president. He uses a voiceover–provided by Samuel L. Jackson, to convey other parts of Baldwin’s work and sentiments. Jackson’s voice is calm and relaxed, like the voice of an uncle telling history on a lazy afternoon. Jackson’s speaking only Baldwin’s own words so this is Baldwin’s story as edited and presented by Peck.
Of Malcolm X and MLK, Baldwin concluded, “By the time each died, they had virtually the same position.”
Baldwin recounts the infamous 1963 Bobby Kennedy meeting where he and Lorraine Hansberry asked that Bobby ask his brother, then-president John Kennedy, that the “small black girl scheduled to enter the Deep South” school be escorted by federal agents so that it would be clear that “whoever spits on that girl will be spitting on the nation.”
Baldwin and Hansberry were unsuccessful. Kennedy concluded “it would be a meaningless gesture,” Baldwin recounts.
Hansberry, failing to get “a moral commitment,” gave Bobby a look and left the room. Hansberry’s family had gone to the Supreme Court (Hansberry V. Lee) in 1940 to end a restrictive covenant that prevented African Americans from buying or leasing land in a Chicago neighborhood. She used that experience to write “Raisins in the Sun,” and became the first black woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died in 1965, only 34.
Baldwin considered, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America.” Peck shows us how in a non-confrontational way, making this documentary a thoughtful meditation on race in the United States as seen through the eyes of major American writer and his relationship with three assassinated leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I Am Not Your Negro” was given a special mention by the Black Film Critics Circle Awards and won the Audience Choice Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. It also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle’s Best Documentary Award.
“I Am Not Your Negro” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September (2016) and was also screened at the November AFI FEST in Los Angeles. To qualify for the Academy Awards, the film opened on 9 December 2016 in Los Angeles and New York, and then opened nationwide on 3 February 2017. It aired as part of Independent Lens for PBS on 15 January 2018 and can currently be streamed.
Films I Recommend for Black Heritage Month
- “An Animated Life”
- “The Birth of a Nation”(2016)
- “Black America Since MLK”
- “Carmen Jones”
- “Free State of Jones”
- “Roots” (new and old version)/”Underground”
- “Sing Your Song”
- “Trials of Muhammad Ali”
- “T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold”