I Am Not Your Negro – movie review

by Peter Calder / 09 October, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - I Am Not Your Negro

An enthralling and sobering documentary on US writer James Baldwin ringingly speaks to our age.

For the title of his paradigm-shifting 1963 book of two essays, The Fire Next Time, writer James Baldwin referenced a line from the slave song Mary Don’t You Weep, which runs, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, but the fire next time.”

It was scarcely an obscure message – not a threat, but a prediction; the book is suffused with much more sorrow than anger – and it is depressing to reflect that, more than 50 years on, “we shall overcome” has not become a quaint historical relic but has been replaced with #BlackLivesMatter. In Trump-era America, Baldwin’s message – at the book’s end, he warned of the risk of conflagration if “we do not end the racial nightmare and achieve our country” [emphasis added] – is more apposite and urgent than ever.

When Baldwin died, in 1987 in France, where he had lived in self-imposed exile for most of his 63 years, he left behind an unfinished 30-page manuscript: Remember This House was to have been a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It remains unpublished, but Raoul Peck’s enthralling, exhilarating and sobering documentary rescues it from literary-footnote status and brings it, and the writer, to vigorous, coruscating life.

Almost every word in the film, intoned in a gravelly voiceover by Samuel L Jackson, is drawn from Remember This House – apart, that is, from the words uttered by Baldwin in a generous selection of clips that bring him thrillingly to life. By turns imperious (as in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F Buckley, whose sneering rejoinders we are spared) and passionate (“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he tells a fellow guest on The Dick Cavett Show. “I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”), he is a figure of both camp splendour and rare wit. Little wonder that his literate and nuanced analyses, which positioned him midway between the non-violence of Martin Luther King and the “by any means necessary” of Malcolm X, drew such scorn from radical activists, including Eldridge Cleaver.

Peck has been criticised for serving Baldwin straight, for making no attempt to contextualise what he had to say, but that is surely its beauty: what’s most confronting about the film is how ringingly it speaks to our age, to a time in which the small city of Ferguson, Missouri, can become an overnight byword for institutionalised racism.

If there are dots to be joined, it is for white people, Baldwin would say, to join them and to ask themselves “why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place”.



This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


The 20 Best Movies of 2017
85197 2017-12-15 11:49:48Z Movies

The 20 Best Movies of 2017

by The Listener

Listener reviewers James Robins and Peter Calder pick the best films they’ve seen in the past year.

Read more
Win a double pass to The Post
85156 2017-12-15 09:53:04Z Win

Win a double pass to The Post

by The Listener

Be in to win tickets to a preview screening of The Post in either Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

Read more
Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call it quits?
85153 2017-12-15 07:18:32Z Television

Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call i…

by Colin Peacock

TVNZ insists the pair want to spend more time with families and radio jobs. What's next for a show that's often in the news because of its hosts?

Read more
National claims government accounts show big hole
85149 2017-12-15 06:32:15Z Politics

National claims government accounts show big hole

by Chris Bramwell

National says the opening of the government books yesterday backs up its argument that Labour has a massive hole in its accounts.

Read more
Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Trump
84715 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z World

Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Tru…

by Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas has chronicled the Trump presidency since its beginning and reviews the extraordinary year since The Donald entered the White House.

Read more
Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direction
84445 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Music

Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direc…

by James Belfield

But it’s no less entertaining.

Read more
The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017
85128 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Technology

The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017

by Peter Griffin

A round-up of the best and grooviest gadgets from 2017 and previews of top tech tempters for the new year.

Read more
Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to change
84383 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Health

Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to chang…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Cervical-cancer screening tests have been helping to save lives for more than 25 years. Now the focus of the tests is going to change.

Read more