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‘I Am Not Your Negro’ offers thought-provoking examination of race in America

On Friday, March 31, Professor Carla Davis and her Race, Self, and Society class took the train into Chicago to the Gene Siskel Film Center to watch a documentary written by James Baldwin and entitled I Am Not Your Negro. The documentary was released in limited theaters in early February, hence the trip to Chicago, and has since been showered with wonderful reviews from many film critics and websites. On the popular film rating website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been awarded with a 99 percent “Certified Fresh” rating by critics, and 85 percent of audience members gave the film a “thumbs up.”

James Baldwin was an American essayist, novelist and social critic whose work frequently focused on race and class tensions in the U.S. and the Western world. He is most well known for three of his book-length essays, entitled The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street and The Devil Finds Work. During the heart of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s, he associated himself with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Through Baldwin’s endeavors to help bring about racial and social equality, he became close friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom were pioneers of the civil rights movement.

The film I Am Not Your Negro is based upon one of Baldwin’s last projects, titled “Remember This House.” This project was going to take on a first-person point of view through the eyes of Baldwin, as he lives through the assassinations of his closest friends and comrades, the individuals listed above. According to the film, at the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had only completed about 30 pages of this piece. The Academy Award-nominated Best Documentary Feature was the project child of Raoul Peck, who has directed Sometimes in April, Lumumba, and Der Junge Karl Marx, all of which reflect Peck’s interest in political activism.

Combining Baldwin’s writing and Peck’s vision, I Am Not Your Negro connects the civil rights movement of the 1960s with the current #BlackLivesMatter movement. Peck achieves this connection by showing clips of speeches and marches made by Baldwin, King, Malcolm X and Evers with protests in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York and Ferguson. Peck shows the funerals of Civil Rights Movement leaders and just a while later, memorial images of Black teens who have been murdered in the past decade or so, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and many, many others. Peck compares police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement to police brutality now. He also explores how public schools treat Black students, comparing Dorothy Counts’s story from 1957 to underfunded, under-resourced inner-city schools  across the nation. In essence, Baldwin’s writing and Peck’s direction work to illuminate the fact that even though our nation has aged 53 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, we really have not made a lot of progress in terms of racial equity.

Overall, I thought that the film did a wonderful job of breaking down Baldwin’s life and the lives of his comrades, as well as applying their lessons and knowledge to the current political and social atmospheres that involve race. There were several small aspects of the film that I was not too fond of; however, there were also aspects that kept the quality high. One of the things I was not too fond of was the fact that at the very beginning of the film, there is a great big animated Amazon Studios’s productions logo. While I understand that it is typical for the companies producing the film to have their animation in the beginning so the audience knows who is responsible for the film, I found that Amazon Studios’s production logo detracted from the beginning just a little bit because it is a colorful, happy animation that then goes straight into a dense and very thoughtful film about racial tension.

My second critique is that while the film addresses the fact that King, Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Evers were friends, they only touched upon their professional relationship as activists. I would have really liked to hear more about their time spent together on a more familiar, less professional level. My last critique is also my largest. Many critics thought that Samuel L. Jackson’s narrations were one of the film’s greatest strengths. I respectfully disagree. I thought that Jackson’s narration, which remained fairly monotone throughout, detracted from the film. In comparison to the voice of Baldwin, which is so filled with wisdom, life experience, sorrow and exhaustion, Jackson’s narrations are lacking in such qualities. Just listening to the voice, neglecting the words being said, his voice does not sound as if he has undergone anything remotely comparable to Baldwin’s experiences. This removes some of the emotions and feeling of some of the scenes and can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Jackson recorded the entire narrative track in one day.

There were so many amazing aspects of the film that I am unsure what to talk about first. Of course, the clips of Baldwin’s numerous speeches, addresses and essays added much depth and emotion throughout the film as a whole. Reading his essays is one thing, but once you hear him speak, as I touched on above, you are able to feel his life’s experiences in a more complete fashion. The music playing during video montages and in between segments of the film also provided a small but very much appreciated component that I thoroughly enjoyed. At one point in the film, Peck put in a video montage portraying many of the black teenagers whose deaths incited riots, rights movements and social policy change. I also really enjoyed the fact that the footage of the more current riots and movements, like those in Ferguson, was not footage that appeared frequently on the media. I had not seen much of the footage before which allowed for yet another perspective to be told.

Overall, the trip to Chicago to see the film was very much worth it. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to see the film if it is in a theater near you. It tells a wonderful, thought provoking story that I believe more of America could benefit from seeing.

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