‘I Am Not Your Negro,’ Archive Footage and Race in America

Raoul Peck revisits James Baldwin’s writings through archive footage and stills in the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’.

A historical documentary with contemporary echoes

I Am Not Your Negro was conceived after Gloria Karefa-Smart (born Gloria Esther Baldwin) had handed a letter over to Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. The letter from her brother, famous African-American writer James Baldwin, to his literary agent spoke of the manuscript he was working on entitled Remember This House. The text aimed to shed light on the Civil Rights era, one of the greatest struggles in American history and focused on three of its leaders and friends of Baldwin: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The thirty-page memoir remained unfinished as Baldwin passed away on December 1987.

In his documentary, Peck gives voice to James Baldwin’s published and unpublished writings, mostly relying on the incomplete Remember This House, by associating the author’s words with archive footage and stills documenting the Civil Rights Movement and today’s events.

In an interview conducted by French magazine Telerama, Peck declared, “this film was not meant to be about the past. I’m interested in this film because it speaks of today’s situation. Rather than merely speaking of what’s happening today, it engages with what is happening today.”

Through Baldwin’s words and through archive material, the director aims to confront the past and the present by examining the position that the black man holds in American society. The clash between old and contemporary clips and images in I Am Not Your Negro correlates the racial tensions of the mid-1950s and late 1960s as well as the murders of three of the Civil Rights Movement’s central figures to today’s killings of (mostly young, male) African Americans.

A powerful narrative driven by archival footage and stills

The documentary not only recounts the history of the black man in America but vehemently denounces the ongoing violence towards African-Americans. Raoul Peck’s stance is clearly expressed when he juxtaposes footage of white people fiercely protesting in favor of school segregation with recordings of the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when armed forces confronted black protestors. When James Baldwin voiced over by Paris-born singer and actor Joey Starr in the French version remains silent in front of such enormities, the visual takes the lead over narration. I Am Not Your Negro raises awareness through its original use of archive materials that seem to imply that nothing has changed over the past fifty years.

As Noah Berlatsky points out, “black people are still harassed, still policed, still imprisoned, and still shot in the United States, much as they have always been.” This statement reverberates with the recent murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray whose pictures pop up at various points in the film.

One of the most edifying moments is when James Baldwin draws a parallel between Hollywood movies and the mistreatment endured by African-Americans. The author quotes his own essay The Devil Finds Work and remarks that America is unable, or reluctant, to consider non-white people as human beings. This takes on its full meaning when actor John Wayne rides a horse across the prairie, shooting at Native Americans in the 1939 Stagecoach. Baldwin explains that as a black man, you don’t stand among the heroic assailants, instead, you stand among the ones being gunned down. Raoul Peck further adds that given the historical context and knowing the fate of Indians, Hollywood makes us “watch[ing] a genocide. […] Somehow it was to entertain us.”

Both Baldwin and Peck try to warn the viewer of how the fate of the Native Americans isn’t so far from the reality being faced by African Americans from the Civil Rights era to today. Besides, the documentary discusses other films, such as the film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, and draws similar conclusions. Peck’s use of archival images seeks to show how black people were and are still constructed as a threat within American society, especially when they claim their rights, as the polemical Black Lives Matter movement would attest.

On Dick Cavett’s TV show in 1968, the visionary author said, “If any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” This chilling declaration, that still makes sense today, draws an alerting parallel between the past and the present. However, the film does offer hope for the future. As Baldwin said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”
The documentary, which has been released on February 3rd in the U.S. and which premiered on April 25th on the French-German channel Arte, is officially released today in movie theaters in France.

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