February 27, 2017

"I Am Not Your Negro"

I Am Not Your Negro is a shattering experience: it confronts us with the pathology of racism that haunts this country and our very souls. The blood-soaked soil cries out for centuries of injustice, and we have too often closed our eyes and our ears, turned away, shouted with the blissful ignorance of privilege that “nothing is wrong” and “things are better now.” How do I know we have done this? Because I know my own words and my own thoughts. I know that my first instincts when I have seen black strangers in the streets is one of suspicion or fear; I know this in the assumptions I have made all my life about people based on their dark skin, their clothes, their speech, their music, their culture, their anger, their stories, inventions, I believed; exaggerations. Paranoia.

How do I Know?

The film draws from the writings of James Baldwin, one of the most powerful, incisive, poetic voices of the 20th century. Baldwin was acquainted with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But Baldwin had escaped to Paris for a while, and returned in the 1950s, when he was convicted that to remain in Europe while his brothers and sisters were fighting for basic human rights was the mark of a coward, a refusal to pay his dues. So Baldwin returned, and we see numerous clips of lectures and interviews in which James Baldwin speaks with breathtaking clarity and honesty about the “racial problem.”

Too often, white people have relegated the discussion of race to black people, as though it were in their domain, because they’re the ones crying “racism.” Baldwin reminds those of us who have the luxury of being able to forget, that we must search our hearts and look honestly at what we find.

Directed by Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro, which is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, combines the words of Baldwin (a mind which becomes increasingly comforting in its truth-telling) with images of civil rights leaders marching, of “black bodies swaying from the trees” (to quote the Abel Meeropol poem “Strange Fruit”), with clips from various movies in which black people are played as sexless, powerless cartoons, or banal symbols, or sometimes, human beings with flesh and beating hearts; with images of Ferguson and other recent atrocities.

But in some strange way, the most powerful and disturbing images are the images of white culture in all its gaudy cheerfulness. When Baldwin holds the mirror up, it’s as though he's exposing us to the fact that we’re all like Stepford Wives, blissfully anesthetized to the horror that we’ve become, completely unaware that our lives of relative comfort and boredom and ease, even our very discontent from having such untroubled paths to walk, all of it has been built on the backs of our black brothers and sisters, all of it has been built on a lie that we believe in equality, but do nothing to fight injustice; This is a lie we told ourselves first, and then spent centuries beating into them, perhaps until we could forget that we had, as Baldwin points out with such earth-shattering power, made ourselves into monsters. “For I have the advantage,” Baldwin insists, “For I have seen your face. And I know you better than you know yourself.”

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