I Am Not Your Negro Programme Note


I Am Not Your Negro (Dir. Raoul Peck, 2016) is a story about identity. Identity in a place that spits in your face, stamps on your neck, and shoots your children dead. The struggle of being born and raised with a sub-human status that casts an impression upon everyone that comes across you. Your skin colour defines you; your neighbourhood; your school; your life.

The film centres on James Baldwin, a writer of the highest ilk, who tells us the story of his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. These men were prominent figures of the civil rights movement who had vastly different means for gaining equal rights in a period known for its relentless tension. A thirty-page, unpublished manuscript and various archive interviews of Baldwin are all that the director, Raoul Peck, had to work from in order to piece together this story for the audience. Upon publication the manuscript was to be called Remember This House.[i] Following the form of a would-be book, the film is structured in chapters guided by the narration of Samuel L. Jackson, and Baldwin’s words are physically typed before the eyes of the audience. These technical aspects reflect the true voice of Baldwin as Peck tries to convey the African-American experience as authentically as possible. 

At the beginning of the film, Baldwin gives a wry smile when being questioned by an interviewer on his views surrounding the civil unrest within America. His innate articulation allows the audience to be utterly captivated by his sheer presence on screen. He speaks of the images of black people that were produced within the media. The garish, Gollywog portraits and the Uncle Tom’s which demonstrated a cartoonish and obedient community. From these old posters the images that are produced evolve into film characters. These characters speak, gesture, and convey emotions in ways that the posters before them could not. This contributes to their so-called believability, and thus, Baldwin’s loathing for them, as he could not find his father represented in any of the characters he saw portrayed. As a child, he saw film and television as a mirror of the world. At the age of five, he was struck by the realisation that he was not mirrored in the cowboys that he idolised as a child - he was the Native American that was shot and killed.

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But Baldwin was not resigned to believe that all of the white community saw the black community as a threat. Nor did he hate white people - he saw that his white elementary school teacher was treated as badly as black people were. In his own words, the world could not hate him, for “It was not white, it never was white.” It was that America had a unique historical context wherein he was left to experience a simmering savageness which assumed his people’s every move. Baldwin lived in other countries with little fear, as he knew that nothing could be inflicted upon him that was worse than what he had already experienced. Home was hell but it was home nonetheless.  

America’s obsession with consumption is called into question as I Am Not Your Negro comments considerably upon how communism must be feared and capitalism embraced. White people protesting integration believed it would lead to communism and promoted this as a scare tactic. As we all know, integration did not lead to communism within the United States. Instead, the labour that the black community has given from their days as slaves to their current entrapment within low-paid jobs has contributed to a greater swelling of capitalism. The moment that black people are recognised as consumers that have a disposable income leads to their approval by advertisers. They must buy into an exploitative culture that once sold their bodies in order to survive. Sadly, this is no more apparent than in the scene that shows a Martin Luther King novelty bobble-head in a New York shop front window. His fight reduced to a cheap plastic commodity.

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By the end of the film Baldwin’s knowing smile has grown weary. He says, “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive,” and you know that when he says this he has become desensitised to the violence he has witnessed. It is at this point that he poses the most important question of the film to the audience: why did white people feel the need to categorise black people as ‘negroes’, when black people never placed this label upon themselves in the first place? Why the need to ingrain this label upon black people over centuries? This word is fraught with a history that tells us of blood, lynching’s and lashings. Members of the black community may have appropriated it, but this word will never shake its derogatory meaning. This word has attached itself to Baldwin. Not through his own will, but through the will of others. 

Medgar, Malcolm, Martin – murdered. Like the young children and teenagers who are slain to this day for inducing a sense of terror in the minds of the brutalised police force. Shoot first, think later. What is there to offer when society won’t let you open your mouth to defend yourself before being shot? The arguments that Baldwin purports are interlaced with present-day footage. Images of the children that lost their lives to police brutality, scenes of Obama’s inauguration, and visions of present-day politicians apologising insincerely. The interspersing of the archive with the contemporary blurs the lines between what was then and what is now. Peck is making a comment upon how little has changed and the timelessness of Baldwin’s arguments. As Baldwin said: “History is not the past, it is the present” – and America will be condemned to repeat its insidious past until its people are freed from the shackles of institutionalised racism.

Noor Abdel-Razik
Film and Television and Politics, M.A. (Hons) University of Glasgow
April 2017


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/fi...

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