The Rapidian

Movie review: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Documentary paints incomplete but compelling portrait of the late James Baldwin.
James Baldwin in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a Magnolia Pictures release.

James Baldwin in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a Magnolia Pictures release. /Courtesy Of Magnolia Pictures

Underwriting support from:

Currently showing at the UICA

Fri, Mar 3, 2017 3:00pm
Thu, Apr 6, 2017 5:30pm

04/04 | 5:30 PM
04/06 |  5:30 PM

UICA Members: $4
Public: $8

"I An Not Your Negro" movie poster

"I An Not Your Negro" movie poster /Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Was there ever a more elegant, even feline, writer than James Baldwin? It does him a great disservice to say he should be read because to do so is good for the reader; he isn’t kale. His legacy owes as much to his stylish prose as to his wounded heart, as much to how he surveyed racial fissures as to those fissures themselves. "I Am Not Your Negro," the new documentary on his life, focuses on the latter, arguing implicitly that race still matters. Well, yes: some people need reminding.

In voiceover, Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s notes for a book that was never finished or even really started: a book-length essay on his friendships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. It’s an open question - an unasked one, as far as I’ve seen - if this writer of lapidary works would have consented to use of those private notes, or if we should care. I think we should. Having said that, with Sam Jackson reading them, even my notes would sound good.

The movie is less the linear tale of Baldwin’s intersections with those civil rights legends than a collage of moments: Baldwin, the expatriate, coming home again to speak his mind; him, slim and sunglass-wearing, in a Corvair; Black Muslims streaming by Malcolm X’s casket; a girl walking to school, jeered and spat upon. Documentary footage is interwoven with racist caricatures, lynched bodies, and clips from willfully innocent films. The overall effect is very painful.

You can’t do everything in an hour and a half. Baldwin’s homosexuality is acknowledged but never explored. His rejection of groups such as the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, and even the NAACP is mentioned but not in depth. Interviews with talking heads can be tedious but may have provided further context. 

But this is a cri de couer, not an essay. The best thing about this film may be that it will lead people to The Devil Finds Work, Native Son, and The Fire Next Time.

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