BY JEANETTE LENOIR
James Baldwin spoke from the grave in this searing and poignant piece of storytelling of our American culture and shameful racist history.
This film is not merely an entertainment piece to add to our collection of artful imagery to fill our heads and occupy empty and bored pockets of the mind. No, this piece is to wake our collective conscience that is rooted in a basic understanding of humanity. The difference this time is that the “our” Baldwin and the creators of this powerful piece of historical and cultural storytelling is directly aimed at is white people; American white people to be exact.
I Am Not Your Negro is a soul shaking and profound message. It forces viewers, especially American whites, to face the ugly truth of race relations in our country. It forces them to address the largest elephant in the middle of the cultural room we call our United States. Keep in mind, there are other elephants to content with, like immigration, women’s rights, disability rights, LGBTQ rights and indigenous people’s rights; however, the biggest one—institutionalized racism—is threatening to release a level of aggression like musth across the country. The film’s aim seems to push white Americans, yet again, through more modern and powerful means, to face the truth of life in America for black people, or “Negros” as this film appoints as another searing and thought-provoking label of brown-skinned Americans.
One can’t deny the uncomfortable truth staring, screaming, whaling, hanging, running, begging, pleading, fighting, marching and confronting them…right in front of their eyes. Closing your eyelids, seeking refuge in indifference, won’t change this stark truth. Black people, since the beginning of our country, have suffered tremendously at the hands of white people. Thankfully, not all white people. There are examples in this film of whites entrenched in the struggle for racial justice and equality too. This truth can’t be separated from the black American struggle. Even so, time has yet to heal these wounds as this film so justly brings to the forefront of a national dialogue. The images on the big screen aren’t new. Most of us have seen them before; either in a class room, a movie theater, books, pictures and essentially through all forms of media and communication. Bob Dylan singing of the callous murder of Medgar Evers stings, and moves a compassionate soul to tears. It seems that each new generation requires a different and more impactful way of forcing much needed societal change. That’s what this film represents in many ways too.
I Am Not Your Negro is the incomplete work of the most dynamic, clear, passionate and unapologetic orator of our young culture and democracy; James Baldwin. Baldwin expresses himself in ways that are still stirring in our current society. If America is to sustain its good fortune—if one can call it that—of not having to experience what has been laid out in Baldwin’s other writings in The Fire Next Time, a populous movement coming to a bloody and tragic head, underway even before the days of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., which this powerful film draws upon, than the time for real change is upon us. Baldwin lays it at our feet. His words, and those of Samuel L. Jackson further tattoos it on our conscience, reminding us all of our responsibility and role in creating a new nation that honors its people, regardless of creed, color, or sex. What we do with this forewarning depends on each and every American that yearns for all that this country pretends to be. But first, we must face the ugly truth that despite the “perfect” images of American lives that has shaped our thinking and understanding of ourselves and fellow countrymen, the reality on the ground is completely detached from the true lives and experiences of black Americans.
Baldwin expresses this as clearly as any man can or could, especially when he states that the image of America we grown up with looks ideal in movies and pictures…for white people. Unfortunately, the portrayal of black Americans is not only false, but morally damaging and despicably demeaning to the people that helped built this country through the brutal practice of slave labor. He makes it expressively clear that black people are not the big lipped, lazy sub-human buffoons as consistently portrayed in the old footage shown as a historical reference in I Am Not Your Negro.
This film diverts our attention back to the reality on the ground. And just when you think that the racial narrative of our country placed in front of us in this powerful film is unrepresentative of our current state of being, you’re hit with images of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Terence Crutcher… the list goes on and on, just like the struggle for equality and basic human rights for all Americans… not just for those who have benefited from oppression, slavery and brutality, to maintain a grasp on the heavy crown called power. Undoubtedly, as it comes across in this film, power equates to might but real power embraces the responsibility of humanity.
America, throughout its short history, has failed to reconcile its racist past adequately enough to settle these burning issues that keep us bound in a discombobulated ball of spaghetti. It’s not a coincidence that the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture only came to fruition in September of 2016. That was 6-months ago… after years of black civil rights leaders and other activists working to persuade mostly white politicians that it’s the right thing to do. There are numerous examples of unjust treatment of blacks, and stark examples of our evolving police state in this film that has primarily impacted black people in America. For this to change, America must change. Specifically white Americans, according to Baldwin and many others like him who have paid the ultimate price pushing for this change to occur.
Throughout the film, this sentiment is expressed eloquently by Baldwin in this uncomfortable but crucial piece of cultural and racial perspective. Baldwin, from the grave, is targeting our collective conscience as Americans. “We’re in this together,” he seems to shout from an impenetrable divide. America is not a white country. America is a multicultural phenomenon brought about by all who built, fought for and shaped her. Black Americans have an equal stake and root in this land and its identity. If white Americans—especially those in powerful positions to shape and govern us as one nation—accept this unyielding truth, we will come together as one people. In our relatively short history, this has yet to happen, making I Am Not Your Negro a reflective piece of art that imitates our real lives. This film is a must see. But, prepare to be confronted with an uncomfortable truth.