Film Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

 

James Baldwin was a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and essays, perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical work “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. This astonishing documentary is an insight into his thinking about racism in America. The title comes from his searing statement:

What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

Baldwin suffered the loss of three of his heroes, murdered in the pursuit of racial equality: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. King wanted peaceful resistance, Malcolm X active resistance. Evers mounted legal challenges against racist institutions. They were all assassinated, presumably because any kind of questioning of the status quo was seen as a threat to  white dominance. Baldwin sought to confront and challenge white attitudes and white ignorance with his written words and his eloquent and passionate speeches.

His words are at times spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, or taken from footage of his speeches.  One prime source is a debate at which he spoke in front of what looks like a completely white and, given the setting, upper class audience at Cambridge University. These segments are interspersed with historical and more contemporary footage of racial incidents such as police brutality in America. This interweaving of words and images highlights how prophetic Baldwin’s words were and how racism is perhaps even more established in the U.S.A (and Australia) now than it was thirty or forty years ago.

The U.S.A. now has a president who defines himself by his whiteness, whose followers are aggressively defensive of their right to be racist. Similar trends can be seen in Australia, where senior ministers defend “the right to be a bigot”. This documentary raises the basic question: Why do we (the dominant whites) need to create and subjugate an “other”, whether that “other” is people of a darker skin, refugees, Jews or people with a different sexual orientation?

 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017.
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