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Five Cent Cine At Home: I Am Not Your Negro

Bringing back Baldwin

[Originally published May 13, 2017.]

The documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” provides an absorbing reminder of the intelligence, passion, and dignity of 20th-century American novelist and social critic, James Baldwin.

The film is set up as the background to a book Baldwin, who died in 1987, considered writing about three of his contemporaries and friends who were murdered in the long campaign for civil rights for blacks in America: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. In 1979, Baldwin sent 30 pages of notes for such a book — it was never completed — to his literary agent Jay Acton. The film is a reading and elaboration of this document, using a broad range of materials. These include interviews Baldwin gave, especially a 1968 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, a 1965 Cambridge Union Society debate in which he participated, and a dozen or more film clips that offer perspectives on contemporary America. Words not spoken by Baldwin are seamlessly rendered by actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The film’s strength is in its bringing to life in the 21st century Baldwin’s trenchant criticism, mostly by using his own words and public statements.

The film’s strength is in its bringing to life in the 21st century Baldwin’s trenchant criticism, mostly by using his own words and public statements. The film clips, which range from a government film on pursuing black capitalism to Hollywood fare, are often effective. After Baldwin describes black children not realizing they are black until they are six or seven, the filmmaker illustrates this concept with footage from “Imitation of Life” (1959). A black mother arrives at her daughter’s classroom, and only then do the daughter’s classmates and teacher realize that the child, who has been passing for white, is black; and only then do the other children say, “I hate you.”

Director Raoul Peck’s juxtaposition of the white goddess Doris Day, pining for her man in “The Pajama Game” (1957), with historical photographs of a lynched black man, on the other hand, is questionable. The comparison plays with the viewer’s emotions while doing little to advance understanding of black-white relations. Black and white Americans alike would find this Doris Day imagery not anyone’s reality. Lynchings peaked in the U.S. in 1892.

The historical jumble presented by the film can interfere with its story. Peck at times ignores chronology, interposes contemporary events, and leaves out significant context. This approach dissolves the distance between the present and the past and asserts that nothing has changed. Peck introduces contemporary events, such as the police use of force in Ferguson, Missouri, with Baldwin commentary from almost 40 years earlier. He quotes Baldwin’s discussion of Birmingham, Alabama, without telling the audience — most of whom would not know — that four young girls were killed in 1963 in a church bombing there. Baldwin says: “History is not the past. History is the present.” Yet one wishes in Peck’s telling for a sense of an historical arc to Baldwin’s thinking.

These critiques are not ones the director, a Haitian political activist, likely would heed. This isn’t so much sloppy filmmaking as intentional use of these techniques for their emotional intensity. “I Am Not Your Negro,” released by a French production company, is less an inquiry than a polemic.

The documentary arrives at a watershed moment, after eight years of the Obama Presidency and the election of Donald Trump.

Even so, the documentary arrives at a watershed moment, after eight years of the Obama Presidency and the election of Donald Trump. We see Bobby Kennedy, in a speech defending the progress of civil rights, state that a black person could be president in, perhaps, 40 years. Most white people would think, “yes, and it came to pass.” But we are chastened by Baldwin’s angry response; to paraphrase: “we’ve been here 400 years and now we have to wait 40 more.”

Polemics are the order of the day. Along with Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” Peck’s film offers a stern rejoinder to those who believe Americans have achieved a post-racial society. From that perspective, Baldwin’s words are as meaningful now as they were when he spoke them. Yet for all its focus and undeniable power, “I Am Not Your Negro” makes one yearn for other voices and other arguments — ones more measured, more nuanced, and more aware of the complexities of the recent past.


Date: 2016

Director: Raoul Peck

I Am Not Your Negro ★★★ ½

Starring: James A. Baldwin (as himself) and Samuel L. Jackson (reading).

Oscars: Nominated: Best Documentary Feature (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety, Hébert Peck)

Runtime: 93 minutes

Available: Streaming Prime Video; Rental and Purchase: Amazon, Redbox and elsewhere. See Just Watch here.


With movie theaters closed, Five Cent Cine is shifting gears. “2 film critics” will continue our usual reviewing schedule of about 3 movies per month, now labeled Five Cent Cine At Home, with all of those films available streaming or for rent or purchase. Each review will list (at the top) the source(s) for you to access the film in your own living room or bedroom.

In addition, we’ll be posting a “Streamer of the Week,” a review from our catalogue (more than 110 reviews dating to mid-2016) of a film available for streaming—a way to revisit a film you’ve already seen or to decide you would enjoy.


Also see reviews on…

The Painter and The Thief

Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Education

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Manchester by the Sea

Until The Birds Return

Sing

Two Popes

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Lighthouse

Eighth Grade

The Traitor (Il Traditore)

Free Solo

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sorry to Bother You

Midsommar

Hidden Figures

Ford v Ferrari

Captain Fantastic

First Cow

Seberg

Ordinary Love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Uncut Gems

Les Misérables

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Bombshell

1917

Little Women

Marriage Story

Queen & Slim

The Irishman

Roma

Cold Brook

Jojo Rabbit

Pain & Glory ( Dolor y Gloria)

Joker

Parasite

Downton Abbey

Ad Astra

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Goldfinch

Good Boys

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

https://www.2filmcritics.com

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