by Marianne Farrell
Photo Courtesy of Youtube
It is extremely difficult to write a review of a movie like Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. This film does not follow a typical Hollywood format, and takes a bit of time to fully get into. The plot is non-linear, and the movie draws on imagery from the early 20th century to modern times. Despite the intricate and sometimes confusing format, this film plays a crucial role in acknowledging the institutional racism that still plays a large role in today’s society.
In order to help audiences fully understand the intent behind this movie, director Raoul Peck provides a brief summary of the subject matter in the opening credits. The plot revolves around James Baldwin, a lesser-known social rights activist from the 1960s. He wrote many novels and letters reflecting his views on racism in society, and in this movie, Samuel L. Jackson narrates from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House”. The text showcases Baldwin’s thoughts on race and its role in society and the relationships he had with famous civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.
However, in his manuscript, Baldwin emphasizes how he differs from these great men. A major reason some have not heard of Baldwin or his letters is because he never marched or physically fought in the Civil Rights Movement. He preferred to write letters and books, give lectures and even appear on talk shows to shed light on the serious racism faced by black Americans. I Am Not Your Negro includes clips from one of Baldwin’s appearances on a talk show with Marlon Brando, Sydney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, where they all discuss their views on the reason black people are treated so poorly in America.
Baldwin’s views also kept him from ever joining groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Panther Party. His ideas even kept him from becoming a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, as he was a critic of the ‘colorism’, or the prejudices against those with darker skin tones, within these groups.
The most impactful moment of I Am Not Your Negro is when Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words over clips showing racism today. Baldwin wrote in the previous century—when people were still hanged for being of a different race, during a time when black people were considered a lesser people than white people—yet his words are still relevant today. The video montage showing young black boys who have been unlawfully and unfairly murdered within the last ten years set to Baldwin’s words is truly unsettling; it shows just how little has changed in terms of race relations in America. In one of these montages, a video of Rodney King, a victim of a police brutality incident and considered to be a major motivation for the Los Angeles riots, being beaten close to death plays while Baldwin’s letter about black people being lynched is read.
“Most movies about racism are about the KKK,” said Arthur Alcantara (COM ’20). “But there's so much going on socially. [I Am Not Your Negro] called out the people who are against racism, but who are still afraid of a black kid with his hood up.”
Although the movie devotes itself to depicting racism through Baldwin’s words, not everyone thought that it was fantastic or that it even showed new content.
“It presented a lot of what people know already,” said Harrison Rusk (COM ’20). “I didn't get that much new information out of it. The most important thing it brings out of it is that modern times isn't so different from what happened years ago.”
Others believe that no matter how often the content may be repeated, it is still an important movie for white Americans to watch.
“I think this is definitely a movie to see. It shows the differences between how far we've come, but how far we have come is not that far,” said Matthew Katz (COM ’20). “[James Baldwin’s] exact words are directly applicable. It shows how divided we were back then and how we're like that now. It's pretty shocking.”
This movie is a reminder that many bright civil rights activists acted from the sidelines and did not achieved the notoriety their peers did. These activists’ words have a resounding relevance in modern society. The film was not solely created for artistry and entertainment, but for people to be further reminded about the racism that is so deeply embedded in American society.