I Am Not Your Negro is exhilarating, breathtaking cinema that demands to be meditated upon, re-watched and discussed.
I Am Not Your Negro is exhilarating, breathtaking cinema that demands to be meditated upon, re-watched and discussed. It is so efficacious precisely because it is daringly transgressive in its storytelling. Specifically, this is not a story about the black freedom struggle or the dogged determination of the black population in the United States to overcome racial injustice. Instead, director Raoul Peck presents a narrative centered upon white supremacy. Rather than the triumph of good over injustice, Peck gives his audience—which will surely be predominantly white—a mirror with which to truly see themselves.
I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary chronicling James Baldwin’s attempt to make sense of being a black man in U.S. society. In 1979, Baldwin set out to write a book on the lives and murders of three of his companions—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He never finished this work, and the incomplete manuscript forms the backbone of I Am Not Your Negro. Peck directs Samuel L. Jackson in reading through the manuscript and overlays Jackson’s voice-acting with various clips and images from both the ‘60s and today. Peck also includes several archival sections featuring Baldwin, Malcolm X and Dr. King speaking about race.
Baldwin’s contribution to the black freedom struggle was different from that of the three men he was trying to write about. Evers and Dr. King were both concerned with institutions and struggled to affect systemic change; the structures of society were brutalizing the black population. Malcolm X was most focused upon reconstructing the mentality of black men in the U.S. If the black male population could truly understand the reasons for their captivity within a white supremacist society, they would certainly be able to resist the resulting forms of oppression. Baldwin, on the other hand, turned his intense gaze towards the psychology of white supremacy and the consequences that this worldview has upon white people.
Baldwin argues that the “cruel unthinking white majority” are deluded by the myth of their own humanism. They want to believe that Birmingham is on Mars, rather than within their own country. Lynching, ghettoization, anti-school integration rioting, police brutality and all of the other manifestations of white supremacy carry with them one damning prerequisite: the perpetrator must become monstrous. In one of his more acerbic speaking appearances, Baldwin calmly rejects the notion that he, as a black person, is the victim of the N-word and the white supremacy that empowers people to use it as a slur. Rather, the victim of this mindset is the one who castigates based on race; the racist needs the term and the false sense of superiority that its utilization brings. The racist person and the racist system are the true victims of racism.
I Am Not Your Negro amplifies this message with both directorial and acting skill. Jackson’s calm, controlled reading of Baldwin’s words perfectly captures the author’s sense of deliberate purpose. Baldwin certainly wrote from his personal rage about the devaluation of black lives—he even says as much—but his rage was not manifest in shouting or expletives, which are generally considered Jackson’s chief oratorical gifts. Instead, Baldwin’s rage expressed itself in a disciplined disdain for the fawning of white cultural elites and a blatant disregard for white people’s discomfort with discussing race in frank terms. Jackson captures and emulates this, imitating not Baldwin’s unique speaking voice so much as his seething and principled calm.
Peck’s various audio and visual interventions throughout I Am Not Your Negro similarly capture Baldwin’s idea that white supremacy is a white pathology first and foremost. He regularly fills the frame with images of ‘60s neo-Nazis and angry white mobs or with the heavily-armored paramilitarized police forces of our own times. The soundtrack is often layered, with either Baldwin or Jackson speaking over the chants of Black Lives Matter protests. It forms a texture out of black oppression, simulating the history of white supremacy from the earliest slave ships through Jim Crow and into the present day—layer after layer of the monstrosity of the foundations of U.S. society. I Am Not Your Negro is unequivocal: white supremacy is a pathology, our pathology.
In interviews about the work, Peck has emphasized that the reason he made the film is that Baldwin’s thinking still resonates today. It still matters. Throughout I Am Not Your Negro, the images and messages are not at all outdated. This is the true horror of the film. Namely, the monsters created by the pathology of white supremacy are still dominating U.S. society. Even more terrifying is that the film cannot answer the question it poses: is white supremacy a part of U.S. society or is it the very fabric from which U.S. society is constructed?