I Am Not Your Negro (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

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Raoul Peck takes the remnants of author James Baldwin's last manuscript to create a documentary about Baldwin and his relation to modern-day struggles.

"I can't be a pessimist, because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive."

There, from James Baldwin's mouth, is the driving force of Baldwin's writing which has given me so much hope in this Trump-era of United States politicking.  Whatever issues I have with the loose biographical account of Baldwin's work in director Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, and there are many, I can't deny Peck has given to the world a useful glimpse into Baldwin's life.  If I Am Not Your Negro drives any viewer to pick up Notes of a Native Son or (my favorite) The Devil Finds Work then it's doing a great good for our society.

But I wonder how many of those potential readers would be attracted to Baldwin's writing because of his handful of appearances in I Am Not Your Negro over the impact of the film itself.  Peck, a tireless documentarian and experimental director, picked a difficult subject.  It's not because of our ongoing struggles with racism or identity, though that certainly plays a role.  Instead it's because I Am Not Your Negro is a loosely assembled collection of thoughts and montages based on collections of sometimes unrelated Baldwin writing that was to form Remember This House.

James Baldwin's eloquent arguments force the attention back onto his words when other white men try to edge him out of the conversation.

I Am Not Your Negro is disjointed and that may be an inevitable feeling considering the unfinished foundation at its roots.  The problem is it's not compelling in its fractured state.  Samuel Jackson provides the narration in a gravely whisper, his tone a world removed from the measured beauty of Baldwin's speaking voice, and provides a detached perspective to view Baldwin's words.  The visuals follow suit, cutting from various movies Baldwin wrote about - including his critique of how Sidney Poitier was rendered sexless in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner - to interviews with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Baldwin himself.

The affect is one of tenuous and sometimes inexplicable connection.  Baldwin was often time a melancholy writer who wrote so sensuously of his experiences that I could feel the glow of stage lights on my face when he write about seeing a play with a black cast.  There are brief glimpses of this side of Baldwin when he appears in interviews but are emotionally disconnected from the images of racist violence in the modern-day United States.  Baldwin wrote in a likely never-to-be-replicated weary if empathetic tone that finds no easy warning or connection to modern-day violence.

One likely culprit for this disconnect is the way Peck keeps the sensual side of Baldwin off-screen.  This is an unusual choice given Baldwin's critique of the sexless treatment of Sidney Poitier.  So Baldwin appears less as a human connected with his community in I Am Not Your Negro and more a mysterious sage whose vague writings sometimes connect with their audience.  When I read Baldwin I can make those connections between his weary observations and modern life.  As they're filtered through Jackson's voice while jumping from movies in the early 20th century to modern-day issues, the emotional and ideological abstraction is so total I nearly disconnected from I Am Not Your Negro entirely.

Peck is in uneasy conversation with Baldwin's writing, only allowing voices from Baldwin's time onto the soundtrack and limiting modern-day commentary to the images of violence.  The black Americans of the past were people of ideals, dialogue, passionate debate, and struggle - as I Am Not Your Negro shows.  Modern day they're merely bodies who carry the barest connection to the passion of their predecessors.  Peck's movie fits in uncomfortably well with R. L. Stephens' insightful critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, as Coates and Peck have both embraced the metaphysical struggle between what came before and what is now without addressing the community or material concerns.

The three murdered men who were to be the focus of Baldwin's last book are as disconnected from I Am Not Your Negro as Baldwin is.

Those material concerns were present in much of Baldwin's writing and to see them largely absent in I Am Not Your Negro speaks to the disconnect Peck's film has with its inspiration.  When numerous black faces appear at the end of I Am Not Your Negro they are not united.  They are present only for a moment, quickly to be replaced with another within seconds.  There is no community, no common struggle, only the cold stare of disconnected individuals with the barest connection to Baldwin's swell of pride in telling a black woman she was more beautiful than Joan Crawford.

Peck has so abstracted Baldwin's writing that I finished I Am Not Your Negro with less affection for Baldwin than I did before.  A quick leaf through of The Devil Finds Work reestablished that intimate bond.  So I have to conclude that it's only Baldwin, and not Peck, that gives I Am Not Your Negro what success it has.  Baldwin's legacy speaks for itself in his beautiful prose, making Peck's film a needlessly obfuscated exercise in disconnect and tone.  I will return to Baldwin's writing this afternoon with The Fire Next Time, but as a reminder of what Baldwin means and less what Peck's film accomplishes.

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I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

Directed by Raoul Peck.
Narrated by Samuel Jackson.

Posted by Andrew

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