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 It remains unpublished, but Raoul Peck’s enthralling, exhilarating and sobering documentary rescues it from literary-footnote status and brings it, and the writer, to vigorous,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”.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

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

Latest

Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd
102505 2019-02-19 00:00:00Z Travel

Inside the close-knit community that lives along t…

by Mike White

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Read more
The stars of Luther talk about their return in season five
102486 2019-02-18 13:16:40Z Television

The stars of Luther talk about their return in sea…

by The Listener

Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Hermione Norris, Wunmi Mosaku and Michael Smiley answer questions about the future of the dark and disturbing crime drama.

Read more
Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing, say families
102465 2019-02-18 09:22:49Z Planet

Vital evidence in Pike River mine disaster missing…

by RNZ

Some families of Pike River mine victims suspect a piece of vital evidence may have been spirited away by the mining company and lost.

Read more
It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland liveable again
102432 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Politics

It's time to empower the mayor and make Auckland l…

by Bill Ralston

Making Auckland a liveable city is an unenviable task, writes Bill Ralston, but it's clear the mayor needs more power.

Read more
Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more