A Warning Bell
Folks, forget about the latest horror movie scaring the pants off of viewers in the next theater over. The real shock is coming from I Am Not Your Negro, the provocative new documentary from filmmaker Raoul Peck that is as incendiary and discomforting as its title suggests. Peck’s film originates from the 30-or-so pages of the unfinished manuscript of Remember This House, written by civil rights icon and author James Baldwin between 1979 and 1987. Though it isn’t a straightforward biography, it does provide a stinging look into the mind of a man whose observations about race in America were as pragmatically insightful then as they are now. Of course, Baldwin didn’t get to see what was coming years after his death -- Rodney King, Treyvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter, but he knew what would come because he had seen it before, just in a different form: The Selma March, The Watts Riots, etc.
The film features archival footage, historical photographs, private letters, taped interviews, and a Samuel L. Jackson-delivered voice-over narration to envision the book Baldwin never finished. The result is a purposefully inflammatory journey into black history that connects the Civil Rights movement to the present-day Black Lives Matter campaign.
In his original manuscript, Baldwin was taking on the stories of three of the most influential voices in the Civill Rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., each of whom he called a friend, and each of whom was assassinated. As his story unfolds on the screen -- highlighted by beautifully imagined sliding graphics and chapter headings, we’re given a hauntingly authentic look at how deeply entrenched the roots of systemic racism remain to this day.
A prevailing theme throughout Peck’s film is the racist representation of blacks in the media and Hollywood films and how movies back in the day perpetuated stereotypical narratives that continue to shape the opinions Americans harbor towards minorities. Peck shares snippets of films such as 1934’s The Imitation of Life, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1937), and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) which, when viewed in this context, verge on appallingly unwatchable. Peck’s narrative -- driven by Baldwin’s own words -- also lends blunt credence to the idea that the fame given to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier by Hollywood is one tainted by a childish sexuality which reduced the mammoth stars to posterized sex icons.
Jackson’s almost unrecognizable narrative hammers home the seriousness of Baldwin’s words with a soul-stirring solemnity that is undoubtedly one of the film’s highlights and one that gives Morgan Freeman’s voice-over dominance a serious challenge. I promise, you’ve never heard Jackson like this before.
I Am Not Your Negro is purposefully difficult to watch yet must be seen. If you don’t squirm in your seat more than a few times, then that’s on you. It offers numerous hard truths about the way we Americans think about race and delivers a sobering blueprint of how we can rewire our collective consciousness. Its message rings a warning bell of sorts for leaders, policy makers, and citizens of this country. We all face the responsibility of changing the direction we’re headed. If we don’t, the ending of this horror story is sure be one the most frightening ever.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “PG-13” for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.