Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X. Medgar Evers.
These are the names of influential civil rights activists who fought to overcome racial segregation in the United States in the 1960s. These names are familiar, showing up in history books as prominent figures of the civil rights movement. Yet, James Baldwin knew each of these men personally, and chronicled his friendships with them for a book titled, Remember This House. He died before he could see the book published, but in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s manuscript is brought to life and delivers poignant and heartbreaking commentary on race relations in America.
Baldwin’s words are narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, and he describes how he met each activist in detail. He recalls his grief at each of their successive assassinations, and remembers each of them fondly, offering a glimpse of what these men were like as people. His accounts add realism to Malcolm X, King, and Evers, as their politics were fueled by their personality and values.
Baldwin also offers insight on his own frustrations and struggles as a black man in America, and how he had to fight for his right to personhood. One of his most resounding quotes was, “When you stand up and try to voice that you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” What especially struck me was how, even in recounting the personal relationships he had with famous activists, Baldwin swiftly called attention to the bigger picture, and how a conversation about race was essential in the country.
Director Raoul Peck also tied Baldwin’s accounts to the present day by showing clips that connected his words to current events. One of the most notable ones is a tribute to the victims of police brutality — pictures of young men and women filled the screen, many of whom had passed away in the past year. And you can’t help but notice that there were too many faces to show, the injustice throbbing and prominent for each tribute.
But there are hopeful moments in the film as well, as there is a clip where a white man tells Baldwin that there could possibly be a black president in forty years. Baldwin took that to be a condescending way of exercising power, and expressed that what he felt the man was saying was that, “In forty years, maybe, we would let a black man be president.” Yet, Peck puts in a clip of the Obamas after that quote as hopeful acknowledgement of how far we can move forward.
I am not African-American, and I acknowledge that I could never truly identify with the struggles that Baldwin wrote about. But this documentary was able to give a glimpse of what years of discrimination and pain looked like, and it provided a deeply personal voice on the civil rights movement of history books.
I Am Not Your Negro sheds light on issues of racism, oppression, and marginalization, and most importantly, how these issues affect all of us. For as Baldwin so aptly puts it, “The history of the Negro in America is the history of America.”