I finally saw this movie last weekend—I say finally because it’s been my most anticipated movie since I first heard about it in September of last year—and it was even more powerful, essential and devastating than I had hoped. I Am Not Your Negro is a clear-eyed, courageous look at American society’s relationship with race throughout its violent history, and James Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them.
The film is based on an incomplete thirty-page manuscript Baldwin was working on right before his death, which he said at the time was the book he “needed” to write. His notes examined the Civil Rights Movement through the stories of his friends who lost their lives to it: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was deeply impacted by these three men’s sacrifices, their friendship and their deaths, and his book was to be a look at how they started out with such differing philosophies about the movement, yet near the end of each of their lives, had come closer and closer to each other’s ways of thinking—especially Malcolm X and Dr. King. This film is not a biopic in any traditional sense; it doesn’t chronicle James Baldwin’s life or even follow a linear timeline. Instead, his voice speaks to us directly, from television interviews and the spoken words of Samuel L. Jackson, who is completely unrecognizable as he brings Baldwin’s writing to life.
Every moment took my breath away, so it’s hard to pinpoint any one scene that rises above the rest, but I will mention a few that were particularly striking. Baldwin’s sadness and loneliness were palpable in his statement that he was older than all three of his friends, and the lone survivor. He reflected that in the tradition he grew up with, the oldest was supposed to take care of the younger ones and was expected to die first, and yet they were all dead before forty, and he was left to fight alone. The very spareness of those few words is devastating, and tells more than any sorrowful monologue about how much he grieved for these three men, because of course their loss was impossible to measure. As he says of the day of King’s funeral, many of them refused to cry, because they feared that if they started, they would never be able to stop.
Among the starkest images in this movie are its scenes of Gary Cooper and Doris Day gleefully dancing—in what Baldwin calls the “most grotesque example of American innocence”—juxtaposed with the photograph of a lynched black woman’s body, hanging from a tree. Baldwin’s brutal diagnosis of America’s problem as one of a purposeful, willful ignorance of the violence it perpetuates and profits from is chilling, disturbing, and still profoundly accurate today. It was easy in Baldwin’s time for the white majority to live in the mythical Hollywood America where everyone dances happily in brightly colored clothes, their stomachs full and their only problems about whether and with whom to fall in love. They certainly had no interest in, or knowledge of, the way the black citizens of their country were living—the price people of color had to pay in order for whites to be so prosperous and trouble-free, or the daily unprovoked violence that awaited them in the eyes and hands of every white person whose path they crossed.
To this day we have two Americas living side by side: one that looks back to a fictitious utopia of yesteryear that sounds more like those Hollywood fantasies than anything that actually existed, and one that lives with the reality of our nation’s flaws, its ugly bargaining away of human rights for profits, and the violence people of color and other marginalized groups have to face—again, still, perpetually. The film makes this point brilliantly as we see images of people marching in the Civil Rights Movement, alternating with photos of young black men killed in the twenty-first century, whose names have become so heartbreakingly familiar to us. As Baldwin’s voice speaks for those that fought and died in the sixties, so it provides a fitting narration for the images of Ferguson, of Back Lives Matter protests around the country, of police with tanks and in riot gear pushing black bodies down in the streets. In 2017, we are still living in between Moonlight and La La Land.
The point that Baldwin makes repeatedly in this movie, his prophetic voice coming to us now when we need it the most, is this: the fate of the black person in America is the fate of America. We must reconcile and deal with our relationship to our oppressed populations if we are ever to face the reality of who we are as a nation, and somehow move on from our painful past into a better future. One of his famous quotes comes near the end of the film: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The last scene in this movie pierced my heart, and left me with Baldwin’s words ringing in my ears for days. It’s a video recording of the man himself, and he says very calmly, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a n—-r in the first place. Because I am not a n—-r. I’m a man. If I’m not the n—-r here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”
Images: Magnolia Pictures