By Justin Cohen, Staff Writer
Posted 5:30 PM EST, Sat., Feb. 11, 2017
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” tells the story of James Baldwin and his observations on American race relations. The documentary hit theaters on Feb. 3 and has since become an Oscar nominee. In partnership with Howard University, an advance screening of the film was held at Sankofa Books & Films, Thursday, Feb. 1.
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent detailing his next manuscript entitled, “Remember This House,” explaining that it would be a personal account of the lives of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X — who all were assassinated. At the time of Baldwin’s death, he left the story only a third of the way completed. Through “I Am Not Your Negro,” Peck attempts to encapsulate the book that Baldwin never finished.
“James Baldwin was one of the few authors that I could call ‘my own.’ Authors who were speaking of a world I knew, in which I was not just a footnote. They were telling stories describing history and defining structure and human relationships which matched what I was seeing around me,” said Peck.
The film tackles many issues facing Black Americans today and in the past. It deals with issues such as the Civil Rights Movement, #BlackLivesMatter, Black representation in Hollywood as well as in our daily lives. Through the examination of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and MLK, it attempts to paint a portrait of the contemporary Black landscape in America.
The film pays a considerable amount of time detailing Baldwin’s self-imposed exodus to Paris. Peck explains his interpretation of Baldwin’s intentions as stepping back from the troubles of our country so that he could better see them objectively and come to a greater understanding of the problem at hand.
In a memorable scene from the film, Baldwin remarks, “I could not have been a Black Muslim or a Black Panther for I did not believe white people were devils,” speaking to the entire theme of the film. Compared to Malcolm X, MLK’s ideas were much more moderate; however, through their lives and by the end of them, both their ideologies became closer to each other’s. What the film illustrates is the differing viewpoints, ideas and ideologies that exist within the Black existence and contrast them with one another, while showing that the end goal of all the ideas presented is the betterment of the Black condition. If such disparate viewpoints exist among the Black community, then how can the concept of a singular “nigger” exist to diminish the difference?
Baldwin saw the whole picture, concerning race relations in America, as evidenced by his famous line, “I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, then you’ve got to find out why.”
The violence and discrimination Baldwin fought during his lifetime persists, the fight he perpetuated remains present, and his story remains relevant as seen in the documentary.
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