I Am Not Your Negro: How Hollywood Failed Black America

5 months, 27 days ago

Raoul Peck’s documentary, based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, is not only an urgent call to action, but also one of the very best cinemas of the year. “>

Filmmaker Raoul Peck( Lumumba) went through 30 different titles before he zeroed in on I Am Not Your Negro, a defiant declaration illustrative of the work of influential author James Baldwin, whose unpublished letters form the foundation of this years most incendiary cinematic call to action. The title also serves as an acute distillation of how systemic racism has cultivated inequality for centuries across the black experience, hammered home in the films first few moments as Baldwins words ring over images from Ferguson as painfully accurate as they were 50 years ago.

The first title wasRemember This House, but I realized that each time I said it I would have to explain why I opted this title and where it came from, the Haitian-born Peck told The Daily Beast during a visit to Los Angeles from Paris, where he is based. I Am Not Your Negrosays, You cannot define me. I define myself. This was James Baldwins attitude his whole life: I cannot let anyone define who I am, whether Im gay, whether Im black, whether Im a writer, whether Im this or that. This is myownresponsibilityto define myself. And I am not a finished product: I am always in building because I learn, I have experience, and I consider the world.

This is an important stand to take, he continued, because thats the bottom line. You have to define yourself. And you cannot accept anybody defining you in your place.

Pecks Oscar-hopeful, along with Ava DuVernays fellow Best Documentary contender 13 th, is one of the most stirring movies of the year in any category. Its a 10 -year labor of love that feels as urgent as ever in todays America. Drawing from 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript of Baldwins linking the lives and slayings of Martin Luther King, Jr ., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, I Am Not Your Negro also folds in shocking footage of Americas bigoted past and the ways in which white-dominated media, advertisements, and popular cinema dictated and reinforced the racist stereotypes that formed the nations idea of black existence.

At days Samuel L. Jackson, portraying Baldwin, speaks the words he wrote to his literary agent in 1979. Elsewhere, Peck invokes the power of Baldwin himself in archival footage of his transfixing orations on race and blackness in America. The movie begins with Baldwins explanation of why, in 1957, he decided to leave Paris to return home after being confronted with images like that of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts, one of four black students harassed by racist segregationist whites in Charlotte, North Carolina, as she simply tried to go to school.

It constructed me furious, Baldwin wrote. It filled me with both hatred and pity and it attained me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her.

In weaving the late Baldwins vital midcentury observations into his essential documentary, Pecks film also holds a magnifying glass to everything from the triumph and tragedies of the civil-rights movement to the new reality of Trumps America to Hollywoods diversity crisisand demands that everyone is hold ourselves accountable for holding the powers that be accountable.

These pointedly choice images speak volumes: Advertisements depicting stereotypical African-American caricatures eagerly serving masters, happily servicing whites; clips from films like Uncle Toms Cabin and King Kong that just as insidiously embedded only subservient or monstrous stereotypes of black people into the public consciousness.

Heroes, as far as I could see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived of which movies were merely a reflection, said Baldwin of the images he grew up watching at the movies. In black-and-white footage from a 1965 Cambridge University debate, he explains the toll that underrepresentation in pop culture has on the self-image and self-worth of a minority child who never watches themselves reflected onscreen. Its as incisive an debate as youll find of the reasons why inclusion and diversity in cinema and television is still so necessary today.

It comes as a great shock, around the age of 5 or 6 or 7, to discover Gary Cooper killing off the Indian, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you, said Baldwin. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.

For Peck, Baldwin became a literary and intellectual constant from the moment he first read him as a teenager searching for validation of his own identity. At the time for a young black boy there was not much you could read, he said. I read the French literature classics, American classics, and I could never find myself through that. Baldwin somehow was the first person to put out a universal approach that at the same time was very personal to me. And at the same hour I think he helped nurture me to its implementation of intellect, helped me understand who I was and what world I was living in, and I came back to it all my life.

The prolific director, whose films include 2000 s biopic Lumumba and the 2013 documentary Fatal Assistance, was working on I Am Not Your Negro when civil unrest erupted over the police killings of black men in America. He sent a crew to Ferguson to film, knowing that what was happening in the Black Lives Matter movement was intrinsically linked to Baldwins still-relevant pennings on race.

But while the Black Lives Matter movement and more recent post-election protests across America have demonstrated a new mobilization against institutional authority, Peck observed that awareness is merely the first step.

I hope the movie also underlines that anger alone is not sufficient, he said. You have to organize. And coordinating is not just coordinating one protest. You have to organize for the long-term , not just one event or one year. You have to make sure youre in for the long runand “thats what” lacking, what the prior generation was not able to do because most of its leadership was either killed, in prison, or in exile. And now we have this new generation that dont have the benefit of their experience, and they have to learn again and find adapted ways to fight today.

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