In archive footage, we see at the beginning of I Am Not Your Negro an interview with the subject of the documentary: writer James Baldwin. The interviewer, when addressing with Baldwin the plight of the black man in American during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he says “Is it at once getting better and still hopeless?” To which Baldwin responds, quite simply, that there is no hope to it.
I Am Not Your Negro is a literary chronicle set to motion through photographs, film clips, and sweeping landscape shots. The raw power of Baldwin’s words is something best heard read aloud. Through Samuel L. Jackson’s uncharacteristically subdued narration of Baldwin’s works and letters, the audience receives a glorious soundtrack of intellectual activism that is as relevant today as it was decades ago when first conceived.
Not everything on the visual track matches the intensity of rhetoric that the audio track does. Hearing the voices of Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., three of the most intelligent voices of the 20th Century, is something that clips from ’30s films and tracking shots of sun streaking through trees cannot stack up to.
However, matching Baldwin’s words of the past to images of the present yields a tragic reminder of the state of America. This is how the film succeeds in its ultimate goal. As inimitable as Baldwin’s words are, the film is not merely a glorification of the man. It is much more, an intense and necessary statement that needs to be heard.
I Am Not Your Negro is marked by its poignancy and unfortunate temporal relevance. That Baldwin’s words have disappeared to the ether, forgotten in the mainstream as Malcolm X’s and, largely, King’s have by a din of noise without substance, free speech diluted by its own saturation, is cause for concern.
Important voices lost to noise are here reinstated in this tempered yet distinctly passionate film. Beautiful, painful words that we need to be reminded of. The film is an important one, that is clear. But it is also a mesmerizing experience.
I Am Not Your Negro: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)