Nominated for an Oscar and getting a very limited theatre run across the UK in 2017, I Am Not Your Negro takes James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House and, through it, explores America’s history of racism. Darren reviews.
According to the news, today is the hottest day of the year. I sweltered in this uncommonly good heat and took a bus into the centre of London. There are more cinemas here than I can name, ranging from the quirky indie to the mass conglomerate chain of bland and imposing ‘tech’ churches, each blaring about the quality of the screen, the sound, the seating. Why am I talking about this? Partly it’s because I’m stalling. I have a lot to say and no pleasant way to say it. And partly it’s because I need you to understand the run up to me watching this movie.
Having done a quick search the day before I found that I Am Not Your Negro has only five, maybe six cinemas in London showing it. Of those, it’s limited to one or two screenings a day with a limited release schedule. I am not sure if the film will still be shown anywhere in London after this week. I entered one of these chain cinemas near the centre, bought the cheapest ticket available and sat in the smallest screen they had to offer. There were maybe twenty seats, with an extra six or seven for premium ticket buyers. Since it was empty, I took one of these; I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do. Over the next half an hour, during middle class trailers and adverts, showing everything from expensive cars to faux happiness replacements, only four other people turned up.
The air-conditioning was on full blast, it was cold, considering the heat outside, and nearly empty.
The film began and then I truly felt cold.
James Baldwin is a writer of some renown. I Am Not Your Negro uses his notes for an upcoming book, that he never got to write, about the death of three men in America; Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Interspersed are clips of Baldwin’s May interviews and speeches, parts of milestone movies and footage/photos of both the historical oppression Black people have faced and modern day oppression that they continue to face. Samuel L. Jackson narrates all this with a slow steady rhythm, acting not as a guide but as a voice of Baldwin’s thoughts. It provides a strong foundation against the charismatic and harmonic musicality of Baldwin’s actual interviews. Listening to Baldwin calmly talk about race relations, that every now and then gives way to unbridled passion, is hypnotic and challenging.
The pacing of this work is not a story; it does not chart the rise and fall of these men, nor of Baldwin. In the opening, when describing to his publisher why he needed to write this book, he called it a journey. This captures that feeling, a journey that does not have an end, one that is hard fought and each victory is not enough. What comfort there is in the freedom that is available today is tinged with the knowledge that not very much has changed, and that lives have been sacrificed. Seeing the racists and Selma and Birmingham is mirrored with footage of Ferguson, not three years ago. Pictures of lynching go hand in hand with video of Rodney King being assaulted by five officers in a circle, of Eric Garner being choked to death, of countless photographs of boys and girls, children, who have been murdered at the hands of the police.
This is not a film about how far we have come. It is about how far we still have to go.
The truth is that nothing has changed it seems, for Black Americans. That the institutions that were against integration, against interracial marriage, against Black people, still wage war. This tears down the rosy eyed view of the past; not one where it was better, no, and progress is the reminder.
With so much to say, it is surprising how concise and clever it can be. How it plays with the institutionalised racism, even with the eyes of the very people who will watch it. An interview between Baldwin and a Philosophy professor comes to mind. Here, the professor says he both agrees and disagrees with Baldwin but says that the Black identity is a mistake. That there is only the human identity. “You have more in common with a white author than with a Black man who hates literature’ he proclaims. And it’s a seductive line of reasoning. We are all human, aren’t we? Why should we be merely defined by one thing? The truth about racism is that it can be apologetic, it can be insidious and it can seem harmless.
To return to the beginning, the cinema. There are a handful of shows in one of the biggest cities in the world. According to my editor it isn’t being shown in my home country at all*. Maybe this is OK, after all, the movie states that this is about the Black American experience. What would be the point of such a movie to the masses of the UK, of Ireland? The Black populace has a totally different experience; one only needs to read Fanon to understand this. The reason is the reason such a movie exists in the first place. Ignorance.
In a cinema not too long ago I watched a film about the crippling poverty many people find themselves in Britain. Not two seats down from me sat a wealthy couple drinking an expensive bottle of red wine. They watched and enjoyed the entire thing unaware that they were part of the problem, that this wasn’t just a story but a reality.
I watched this movie and knew that I am a part of the problem.
In the opening, a letter from an FBI field agent to the director is shown. In it Baldwin is described as dangerous, as many Black men of the time were, and still are, labelled.
Dangerous? Only to those who fear change.
Big Picture Reviews do not score documentaries. Read about it here.