Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2016
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures/Amazon Studios
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG-13
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Hate Crimes In The Heartland, The Central Park Five, The N-Word, The Birth Of A Nation (2016 Film), Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls, 500 Years Later, The Witness: From The balcony of Room 306
-This documentary is based on the unfinished book called Remember this House by James Baldwin. It’s an extension and completion of that book in film form. Also, Baldwin’s estate was sued by McGraw-Hill for their $200,000 advance before they dropped the suit.
-I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Oscars, but it lost to OJ Simpson: Made in America. I’m going to resist saying why that film got snubbed for that award.
-Director Raoul Peck used to be a Minister of Culture in his home country of Haiti.
-James Baldwin is an author most famous for writing books such as Go Tell It On the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and If Beale Street Could Talk.
This documentary had been on my radar for a bit around the time of Oscar season. Okay, I barely paid attention to that award show because I’ve found it problematic for years now much like how the Grammys were to the music industry. Given the sociopolitical climate, a documentary like this needed to be made people to this day are still in denial about the prejudices against others in this country.
All it took was an unfinished book from a dead author to make it work.
I Am Not Your Negro is a social/historical documentary that is an expansion of James Baldwin’s non-fictional work. Not only does it tie into the events of his time, but it also connects into various issues affecting minorities today such as police brutality, media misrepresentation/non-representation, discrimination, and other blights on this society. The unfinished book Remember This House also focused on the lives and deaths of three individuals: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers as he’s met with all of them at some point in his life while also hearing about their untimely demises.
I will say that this was a fascinating documentary. I was only slightly familiar with James Baldwin when I had to read Go Tell It On The Mountain during my sophomore year of college for an American Literature class. During the interview scenes with him, I thought it was amazing how intelligent he was and I want to check out more of his bibliography. He has phenomenal wisdom about social issues and even ways I never would have imagined. Even when his written words were narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the gravitas of that intelligence was still intact. Seriously, I had to type out several quotes because they were so wise. I don’t want to type them all lest parts of the movie get spoiled for any of you. I really liked Baldwin’s repeated analysis of John Wayne as both a cultural icon of his time, but also deconstructing the characters he’s played in several Westerns. He mentions that protagonists like Wayne were in a cinematic world where “heroes were white…in a land movies reflected.” To further that view, there’s the notion of him shooting up Native Americans or getting revenge on people without consequences. Baldwin observes that if a Black man had a personality like John Wayne’s, that they would be an enemy of the state and a complete madman. It’s amazing with all the double standards in both cinematic and real-life representation of someone just because of their skin color.
The cinematography was something I had to get used to a bit. I understood the usage of archived footage and clips from various movies or TV shows since the historical element plays a big role in I Am Not Your Negro. There are several pictures that are shown that are both historical and modern with the occasional B-Roll footage or stock footage. I will say that the extra footage does highlight certain things. When it gets to the scene where Samuel L. Jackson is narrating the experience of James Baldwin talking of his experience of being in a hotel in Florida and hearing that Martin Luther King was assassinated, there’s some footage of a pool with clear blue water flowing around. It shows the counterpoint of the eventual news of that Civil Rights leader’s death while also giving visuals of the environment Baldwin was in when he heard the news. I found out that this documentary had a budget of a million dollars, but it didn’t feel like it, but the budget may have been used for the legal rights to use some of the footage, to hire Samuel L. Jackson, and to use some of the music especially since the ending theme is actually “The Blacker The Berry” by Kendrick Lamar.
I will say the content is superb despite some of my qualms with the production. I liked how the documentary goes in different segments to speak on different aspects of racism or just with James Baldwin’s life at certain times in history. I also enjoyed the nonpartisan approach on talking about racism. Baldwin criticizes Bobby Kennedy for being naive on segregation or how minorities were getting murdered with their killers getting away with their crimes. Much like Hate Crimes In the Heartland, it mentions how this should be a human issue and not politicized. There’s even a brief montage where the narration talks about people aren’t sincere when they apologize about intersectional issues. While I didn’t recognize some of the faces, the two that should stand out to everyone would be both candidates of the 2016 Presidential Election. Let’s be honest, whether you call POCs “thugs” or “super-predators”, that’s still bigoted no matter what. It was more eye-opening when they brought up the media representation aspect of how Black people (certainly Black Men) are portrayed. They are seen as walking punchlines, stupid, and/or shown as dancing fools. One scene in this montage involved an old black & white Chiquita advertisement of an African-American man dancing around in a small banana stage where he’s singing the “I’m a Chiquita banana” jingle. This was just emasculating and disgusting with how shameless it was. That mindset is still there to this day. Just think about it for a second. When was the last time you’ve seen White men get portrayed as effeminate and as suspect with the consistency or severity of someone like RuPaul, Young Thug or The New Day from the WWE? Imagine if they gave those kind of gimmicks and personalities to someone like a Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, or a Chris Hemsworth without any form of irony or satire. How would you feel if major media companies did that? Go on. I’ll wait.
There’s also one issue not related to the content of the film that must be addressed. After I Am Not Your Negro debuted, IMDb and Metacritic was flooded with troll reviews that were just unintelligent and incoherent. The consensus of these messages were the result of people angry that a movie like this would DARE talk about racism and how it affects people in this modern age. Funny enough, I’d bet anyone dollars to donuts that these are the same people who call others “snowflakes” for disagreeing with them. Who are the real snowflakes? Besides, this whole “anti-White” narrative is a stupid strawman and the vote storming backlash literally proves the point of James Baldwin and Raoul Peck. Counterproductive, much?
I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary that deals with the uncomfortable truths of racism, but the quality is still great. It is a very intelligent film that does justice to the unfinished work of James Baldwin. I enjoyed the insights of Baldwin as he talked about how he didn’t agree with all three Civil Rights icons while also taking issues against militant groups such as the Black Panthers for example. The level of sapience is incredible and people need to soak up that knowledge. I do wish they would’ve done some things different with the visual aspects or tie in more to modern issues or talk more about Medgar Evers, but the pros certainly outweighs the cons. I Am Not Your Negro is a movie that needed to be made and the words of James Baldwin are still relevent in this century. Much like Hate Crimes In The Heartland, this doc gets my highest recommendation in that genre of film making.
Adjustable Point System:
Subtract 2 points if you get uncomfortable about America’s less-than-stellar past when it comes to treating minorities
Subtract 1 point if perfect documentary production means everything to you
-Incredible correlation with the past and present day race issues in America
-Amazing wisdom from James Baldwin’s unfinished story and with the interview footage
-Presenting race relations as a human issue and not a partisan one
-Some visuals not flowing together from scene to scene
-Samuel L. Jackson can be too solemn at times (the opposite problem of the characters he usually plays)
-More insight could have been used for Medgar Evers or modern issues like police brutality
Final Score: 10/10 points
Content Warning: It’s earned that PG-13 rating. The N-word does get used a few times which will be the biggest language issue there. There are some violent scenes like the Rodney King beating or the police violence in Ferguson. There’s even some nudity with images of a John Wayne movie where one of the cowboys strips a Native American woman down. This is a mature movie for those open-minded and for those that need to know important elements in American culture despite not being talked about in history books that much.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.