Nearly six months after its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, three months since its distribution to major U.S. cities and two weeks after the 2017 Academy Awards—where it was nominated for Best Documentary—I Am Not Your Negro will at last make its appearance in Idaho when it opens on Friday, March 10, at The Flicks.
Here is an astonishing, challenging, razor-sharp documentary about iconic playwright, novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Upon further reflection, however, I Am Not Your Negro is also a quintessential American cinematic experience. As much as Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Gone with the Wind and Taxi Driver ask us to consider our national ambitions, grit, pride or violent nature, I Am Not Your Negro questions the American social, political and historical chasm of color.
"American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it," Baldwin told a gathering of New York school teachers in 1963. By then, at 39 years old, Baldwin had already encountered more than his share of terrible in America: He was targeted by the FBI for being an erudite black scholar—and a gay man.
Baldwin's disillusionment pushed him to Paris, where he was celebrated as one of the world's greatest essayists.
His alignment with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s kept Baldwin, and his writing, at the forefront of the American conversation. With Baldwin on its cover in May 1963, Time magazine wrote, "There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South."
Deep into I Am Not Your Negro, we see Baldwin appearing on a public television program in 1963. When asked to address language that dehumanizes black people, he let white Americans know exactly who was to blame for the culture's long history of racist terminology.
"What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger," he said to a stunned television audience. "I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it... If I'm not a nigger and you invented him—you, the white people, invented him—then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it's able to ask that question."
Baldwin hoped to advance his search for an answer to "that question" in 1979, when he wrote to his literary agent and committed to what he called a "complex endeavor": He wanted to tell the story of America through the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. All three civil rights leaders, each one assassinated, had been Baldwin's close friends.
"But they were betrayed by those that they loved," Baldwin wrote.
Fewer than 10 years later, and with only 30 pages of the manuscript written, Baldwin died of stomach cancer.
Drawing on those precious 30 pages and with unprecedented access to Baldwin's estate, filmmaker Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April)set out on his own complex endeavor to craft I Am Not Your Negro. What started out as a documentary about Baldwin's exploration of Evers, King and Malcolm X, evolved into an emotional story of what lies at the heart of American racism.
Throughout the film we're privy to rare archival footage of Baldwin speaking to students at Cambridge University in 1963; appearing on ABC's The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 (a time when late-night TV show guests were often authors and scholars) and, in a fascinating roundtable, talking with Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando about the civil rights movement.
In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin's essays are the real stars, engaged by the magnificent Samuel L. Jackson, who narrates the author's own words and allows Baldwin's prose to trumpet anew for future generations.
In one particularly emotional moment near the end of the documentary, Jackson, reading Baldwin's words, cautions, "History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are criminals. The world is not white. It never was white. It cannot be white. White is a metaphor."
As Jackson narrates these words, Peck shows us images of hundreds of black men and women dating as far back as the founding of the nation and continuing through to the present day. They are not smiling. Neither are they frowning. They're stoic. Pensive. Hopeful. Scared. Americans.