By Natalia Resendez
James Arthur Baldwin was born in New York on August 2, 1924 and grew up in Harlem. He is most known for being a very vocal advocate for equality as well as a major voice in the American civil rights movement. He was an American novelist who wrote about the black experience in America until his death on December 1, 1987. He lived in Paris for about eight years of his life to escape racism in America but returned just as the civil rights movement had begun to have a voice in this life changing time period of history (Britannica). In short, Baldwin wanted the American people to hear his message: “The world is not white. It never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power” (Peck). No matter what your skin color is, we should all treat each other equal. Despite our skin color, we are all human beings.
I am Not your Negro is a film directed by Raoul Peck, a political activist, and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson (Hayward). This film is based off an incomplete book written by James Baldwin speaking upon how racism was throughout his lifetime while focusing on the history of his close friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. I believe the purpose of this film is to make people aware just how extreme the inequality is in American based upon a person’s skin color. More specifically how the black community fears for their lives at times because they might not agree or support what everyone else in society supports. As Baldwin says in this film, “I sometimes feel it to be an absolute miracle that the entire black population of the United States of America has not long ago succumbed to raging paranoia”(Peck). This quote simply explains how racism has been around for far too long; that it is almost unbelievable to think that the black community of this country can still trust white people based off all the inhumane and cruel things they have done towards them. The film as a whole has many powerful features, but I do feel there are a few things that could be adjusted to make the film that much more effective. Altogether this film has more positive features rather than negative, the film overall is very factual and enlightening.
This film makes it seem as though Baldwin is talking to you in the first person. Peck even uses some of Baldwin’s television speeches here and there which makes it even feel more as if he was telling us his story at first hand. Peck incorporates real police footage from the 60’s while also showing similar footage from current police forces, this in a way resembling each other but making it known how this is occurring in two different time periods. Peck included multiple newspaper articles in this film, one of them being pictures taken of Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old African American student, as she was one of the first to integrate into what was known as a school for white people only. She was getting screamed at by nearly everyone around her, harassed, and criticized but showed no fear or faze by all the people attacking her. I believe that Peck incorporates Baldwin’s style and objective in this film quite nicely by not only using some of Baldwin’s own speeches that were filmed while he was alive but by also including newspaper articles like the one described above, pictures of protests, etc. showing just how intense the civil rights movement was throughout Baldwin’s lifetime.
I found it impactful how Peck divided this film into six different sections each focusing on a specific topic. The six are: Paying My Dues, Heroes, Witness, Purity, Selling the Negro, and I am Not a N*****. By breaking down the information it helps the films’ structure, more specifically making it easier for the viewer to gather all of the information provided throughout the entire film. These sections also help the viewer know what the focus is on before being provided the information. I especially liked the last section, I am Not a N*****, even though it was the shortest one. Baldwin says “History is not the past. It is the present… We are our history” (Peck). My interpretation of this quote is how we, the readers or viewers of this film, are making history as we speak. Our day to day lives are a part of today’s history and some people seem to forget that. Baldwin is explaining how people are stuck in the past but in reality, we should focus on the present because that is what is going to shape and develop our future. In my perspective this was a strong section to end the film. It just about summed up what Baldwin’s message was throughout as well as making the viewer think for themselves how they are living their own lives or how they perceive their own. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history.
As for something I thought this film was missing it would be a higher rating and trigger warnings. Although the film is rated PG-13, I do feel as this is not an appropriate rating. PG-13 movies are targeted for people who are thirteen and older. Although some thirteen-year olds may be mature for the language and imagery of the film, I feel as most thirteen-year olds probably will not be. This film is for more mature audiences, making me think the film should be rated R. Rated R movies are for seventeen-year olds and up. Not only do I think seventeen-year olds will be able to handle such graphic imagery and language, but I also think that seventeen is a more appropriate age to be showing this film for the viewer to be able to understand the concept and message fully. I also do believe that before showing some of the graphic imagery, such as the people hanging by their necks at the end of the film, they should put a warning before. Especially since this film came out in 2017, it is current and most films in present day do include such things because of certain people having a hard time looking at such graphic imagery. Even something such as warning before the movie starts stating that the film is for mature audiences only as it shows graphic language and images is something that I think would be essential to include.
In a review I read on this film by A.O. Scott, it came to my attention how Peck talks about various things, such as Barack Obama becoming president and the Black Lives Matter movement being included in the film. Scott explains in the review how it would not be necessary to include these topics because Baldwin did not live through that period in his lifetime. Baldwin might have mentioned things in the past that now reflect present day history, yes. Being said, my interpretation of this film was to focus on Baldwin’s lifetime throughout the civil rights movement, not about current history. Although, I do see how Peck was incorporating more current events in this film to possibly show or compare lives then to how far America has become today. I do agree, and could see how others might as well, incorporating that information may be a little odd while the main focus of the film was to be Baldwin’s lifetime throughout the civil rights movement.
I believe this film to overall be very informative and eye-opening. Peck does an amazing job by using not only Baldwin’s own speeches that were broadcasted on TV, but by incorporating newspaper articles, vintage photos, and news footage of all the events taking place in the time period that was most impactful during Baldwin’s lifetime. My few critiques for the film would make it more enjoyable for myself to watch, which consist of including trigger warnings and the overall film to have a higher move rating, etc. Overall, this film does an excellent job incorporating Baldwin’s style and objective while not only making his message of the unfinished manuscript clear but also shedding light on such an important matter in America.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “James Baldwin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Baldwin.
Hayward, Claire. “Director Raoul Peck And The Legacy Of Lumumba.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 19 Sept. 2012, theculturetrip.com/caribbean/haiti/articles/raoul-peck-a-vision-of-political-cinema/.
Peck, Raoul. I Am Not Your Negro. Magnolia Pictures, 2016.
Scott, A. O. “Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/movies/review-i-am-not-your-negro-review-james-baldwin.html.
Course: ENG 101
Instructor: Kevin Lamkins
Instructor Comments: Natalia shows something in this piece that is very important: the ability to critique even the things we like. Her criticisms don’t overwhelm the positives, but describing both make her evaluation more credible and show the reader that she’s willing to think critically even when it’s complicated.
Photo Credit: “Portrait Baldwin” by Terence Faircloth (Licensed through Creative Commons)