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I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary essay that brings to vivid life the words of celebrated and influential writer James Baldwin (pictured above). Baldwin published articles and gave talks about race relations in the US throughout the civil rights movement, and was close to the central figures in the struggle for equality. In his unfinished book, Remember This House, Baldwin expands on the historical, political and personal impact of the murders of three prominent figures in the movement: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. In I Am Not Your Negro, director Raoul Peck uses this concept as a starting point to explore Baldwin's ideas and apply them to the present day.
Compiling a visual archive of America throughout the 20th century and up until today, Peck has selected his footage and images carefully to give maximum impact to Baldwin's words. Broken down into sections which tackle Baldwin's theories, the historical context, and Baldwin's own personal memories and observations of that time, the film asks broad questions about how - and why - America perpetuates racial inequality. While letting Baldwin speak for himself - both in narrative voiceover and with footage of talks and interviews - Raoul Peck picks up on Baldwin's concerns, and reasserts the case that change is not going to come until there is a fundamental shift in attitude; when America embraces all of its Americans. Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin's words in a way that feels intimate, but that doesn't imitate the writer's unique delivery; a deliberate choice that Peck explains to our young reporter Beattie in the interview below.
An extremely accomplished and persuasive speaker with an opinion firmly grounded in the human cost of America's growth as a nation, Baldwin's significance was felt worldwide - including in the UK. Footage of his talks is used in Big City Stories, an archive compilation curated by Black London's Film Heritage, and British race relations are again referenced in using Horace Ove's Pressure, an early film in the Black Cinema movement. Peck uses Pressure to illustrate the parallels between the British and American black experience of discrimination, and the interpretation of interracial relationships, both on screen and in real life.
Sidney Poitier (who also features in Big City Stories as an inspiration to young black Londoners for his role in To Sir With Love) is discussed in I Am Not Your Negro as a black romantic lead. Despite Poitier's obvious appeal, movie studios at the time were only concerned with white audiences, and were afraid to fully utilise Poitier's talents for fear of backlash, even in romantic dramas such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Films featuring black leads were considered a box office risk by Hollywood producers, and while the rise of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte represented some progress, it was hobbled by the limited scope they were given as actors. Recent film Loving also expands on the issue of a dominant society's interference in the personal sphere, revealing a landmark case in which an interracial couple were legally persecuted for the 'crime' of being married.
I Am Not Your Negro is keen to explore where this fear comes from, with cinema itself coming under close scrutiny for perpetuating an idealised vision of the American Dream. Hollywood is implicated in forging an on-screen legend to gloss over the reality. In a recording from one of his talks, Baldwin describes his excitement at watching Westerns as a child, and the horrifying turning point when he realised that in these films, the person of colour was always the enemy, and the hero he'd been rooting for was a white man using violence to oppress them.
Peck builds on Baldwin's personal epiphany to reveal how the majority of American cinema shows an exclusively white experience, using clips of bright technicolour musicals - which embody naïve optimism and a world where everything is for the taking - juxtaposed against the horrifying realities of the black experience. Peck uses imagery of police brutality and the resulting uprisings, such as the Watts Riots, or the witness footage of Oscar Grant (which was featured so poignantly in Fruitvale Station, a film which dramatises the events leading up to that incident) to make a stark point about the normalisation of violence against black Americans.
In confronting an attitude of racial entitlement vs disenfranchisement, the film shares parallels with 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets, a heartrending documentary about the 2012 shooting of unarmed black teenager Jordan Russell Davies by a middle-aged white man, in a row over the volume of his music. The Hard Stop, meanwhile, gives a British perspective on the use of extreme violence against black people. An uncompromising documentary that explores the circumstances of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011, the film presents Duggan as only the latest victim in a long history of violence borne out of prejudice.
As well as the arresting use of juxtaposition, Peck has also made more subtle edits to well-known images and footage to alter the impact of the visuals - for example, in the use of colour and black and white. In doing so, Peck appeals to the audience to interrogate what they see, and to consider whether the films they watch are fully representative of the human experience, or a perpetuation of fantasy. Contemporary films such as Dear White People and Get Out also encourage audiences to reflect on their own complicity in the status quo of race relations.
Despite the documentary's evidence highlighting the continuing race relations issues, James Baldwin's words and attitude do provide some hope. His matter-of-fact analysis of how the history of America has created this inequality also contains an appeal to acknowledge that Americans of all colours were involved in building the country up, and all have equal right to enjoy its successes. As Baldwin says, "the story of the negro in America is the story of America". While "it is not a pretty story", his words convey the kind of sense needed to challenge apathetic attitudes and irresponsible representations that perpetuate inequality.
Jeff Nichols' new film tells the true story of an interracial couple's fight to maintain their marriage in the face of legal discrimination in 1950s America.
Reading time 6 mins
A selection of films looking at international representations of Black History across cinema.
No. of films24
Diversity on film: Black Star
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