I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck, 2016) is uncomfortable to watch. No white viewer can escape its condemnations. Even progressive, liberal, racially enlightened and/or sensitive viewers cannot escape. The documentary is about the brilliant writer James Baldwin and his provocative analyses of America’s racial history. Using clips from films, newsreels, and interviews with Baldwin, it investigates the responsibility of white Americans for creating the historical, social, and cultural matrix of causes and effects that led to the nation’s fraught racial history and situation. The film centers on interviews and public statements made by Baldwin from the 1950s through the late 1970s. It’s loosely structured around a book Baldwin proposed to write (but never finished) on the lives of three assassinated icons of the Civil Rights movement: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X, all of whom Baldwin knew. His plan was to discuss the racial environment of the United States by focusing on these three figures.
Baldwin was a brilliant talker and thinker. Especially impressive are sequences from his appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, where comments offered by a professor of sociology at Yale provoke him into an incredible series of incisive statements about the situation of black Americans in the 1960s. The film deliberately ties the problems targeted by the Civil Rights movements to the racial situation in contemporary America by using images and film clips of black Americans killed by policemen and other law enforcement officials in the last several years. Baldwin finds apologies and other gestures offered by white Americans concerning the treatment of African Americans to be unsatisfactory. He wants white Americans to take action, real action, to correct the injustices that people of color suffered in the 1960s, and that they continue to suffer today. Baldwin indicts not so much white Americans individually (though he describes them as culturally dead) as he does the institutions, cultural conventions, laws, economic divides that they helped to create.
The film takes a pessimistic view of race relations and the likelihood of their improvement—Baldwin saw little hope for improvement in his own lifetime, even though he held hopes for American democracy, and the filmmaker sees little hope in 2016.
As bad as the racial situation was in the 1950s and 1960s, I disagree that it has not improved in the intervening years. There have been clear progress and improvement. By so saying, I don’t dismiss the serious problems—economically, judicially, legally, culturally, and otherwise—that African Americans and other minorities continue to face.
This film is instructive, compelling, disturbing, infuriating, and uncompromised in its presentation of its subject. It’s a wonderful presentation of Baldwin and proof that the writer, dead now for over thirty years, remains pertinent. It’s also a panoramic view of racism and race in America—the nature of racism, its manifestations in violence, murder, subjugation, and denial—over its four hundred-year history.