Before I start this review I need to make it clear that I am not familiar with the writings of James Baldwin, in fact, before this film, I hadn’t even heard of film. That’s perhaps why this film is so important. When I’ve been taught about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, the focus of the teaching has always been on Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, but this ignores the hundreds of people involved in the movement before, during and after King and X were involved. As a result, films like this are important to highlights those members of the Civil Rights Movement who haven’t been as lionised as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and James Baldwin is a fascinating person through which to view the Civil Rights Movement. Now the structure of this review will be different to my other ones, and will be shorter, due to the nature of documentary cinema.
The film takes the form of a number of letters written by James Baldwin, along with notes he’d written, regarding his unfinished book about the Civil Rights Movement, focused on his relationships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Through these letters, we find out the way that Baldwin understood the Civil Rights Movement, the interactions he had with the leaders, the reactions he had regarding their deaths and, most interestingly, his relation to white America. The writings that we hear of James Baldwin are fascinating. Through them we get a thorough understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and the way in which they reacted to the authorities trying to shut down the protests, along with understanding the different viewpoints of those involved, mainly Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, along with the collective grief felt following assassinations of key figures. What I found most interesting though is the way that Baldwin critiques white culture. There’s this condemnation of the way in which white culture, in particular white cinema, portrays black people, ranging from the openly racist ‘Uncle Tom’ caricatures in films that glorify slavery, to depictions of black people that Baldwin sees as more condescending, particular ire going towards films staring Sidney Poitier. Baldwin’s critiques of the ways in which black people are dehumanised in the media, their concerns going ignored and reduced to caricatures, are fascinating, and are elements that I hadn’t really thought of before, being white. Speaking of which, the critiques the film offers for elements from culture and politics does a great job of making you understand the changes that are needed in society, things that those in power wouldn’t think of as they would assume that the issues were solved, their whiteness informing their condescension and ignorance. The film further highlights how virtually nothing has changed since the Civil Rights Movement, mainly through the editing.
The editing, combined with Baldwin’s writings, help make the film work as well as it does. The use of archive footage is excellent, doing a great job of highlighting specific issues that Baldwin brings up from the time, but it’s the use of modern footage that’s most fascinating. At numerous points throughout the film, the film cuts between footage of the Civil Rights Movement and footage of the Black Lives Matter movement and between the beating of protesters during the Civil Rights Movement to the brutal treatment of black people today, including showing footage of prominent cases where the police have brutalised black people in more recent times such as the Rodney King beating and the shooting of Oscar Grant. This use of editing, along with the accompanying music and Baldwin’s writings, does a brilliant job of highlighting how the issues that plagued America during the Civil Rights Movement haven’t gone away, and probably will never go away, as long as white authorities refuse to recognise that there is a problem.
Overall, I Am Not Your Negro is a fascinating film. The writings of James Baldwin, perfectly delivered by Samuel L Jackson, help create a look at the Civil Rights Movement, and the overall experience of being black in America, that I have not been able to understand until now. Baldwin’s writings hold just as much power today as they did 40 years ago and this film highlights the work that still needs to be done to ensure racial equality in America and the world.
My Rating: 4.5/5