He didn’t live to see today’s America, but James Baldwin (1924-1987) predicted that a-then divided America would continue to exist so long as the country refused to see Black people as Americans.
Unlike last year’s 13th by Ava DuVernay that used a myriad of voices to explain the 13th Amendment and its origins and failures since its passage, Baldwin is the lone star of I Am Not Your Negro. His unfinished writing and his words voiced by Samuel L. Jackson along with archival film and television appearances by the late author, serve as a guide that “explores the current racial narrative in America,” as the press release states. The Oscar-nominated documentary opens nationally in theaters Friday, February 3.
Baldwin left his native New York and relocated to France at age 24, but returned to the U.S. and traveled back and forth. He engaged in the societal upheaval of the time as a social and political activist, using his writings in the same vein.
Director Raoul Peck brought Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript alive in living color. Baldwin’s words are so powerful, so defiant, so telling of this country’s future three decades later. He originally planned to write his memoir, using the lives of his three friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who all were assassinated within a five-year period during the ‘60s — to paint a word picture of two Americas that are seemingly unable to reconcile.
He only got around 30 pages of the book Remember This House completed before his death in France in 1987. Baldwin noted that America in his lifetime was a place of two extremes: “Gary Cooper and Doris Day” at one end — a perfect idealistic country — and the face of “Ray Charles” on the other side of the spectrum.
No societal stone was left unturned as Baldwin took to task Hollywood, politics, religion, education, confronting and challenging the inequality that exists between Whites and Blacks living in America. “The world is not White…it is a metaphor for power,” he pointed out.
Peck deftly ran a quick montage of voices of Whites, including the current U.S. president, attempting to apologize for over four centuries of racism and oppression. Their words ringing hollow in the face of reality. “The American people invented the ni**er — I am a man, “ declared Baldwin.
The Twin Cities Black Film Festival (TCBFF) sponsored a screening of I Am Not Your Negro February 1 at the Lagoon Theatre in Uptown Minneapolis.
“It was like he [Baldwin] sat down and wrote it for today,” said TCBFF Founder-Director Natalie Morrow to the MSR after the screening. “We can all relate to it because there are the questions that he was asking back in the ‘60s. We are talking about a span of 40-50 years and we are still asking them today and that is a sad thing.”
The MSR also got a quick post-film review from several patrons:
Nearly two weeks into the Trump presidency, “I don’t see it changing,” admitted Debra Douglas of Minneapolis of present-day America. “I am just so moved but at the same time [I] feel hopeless. We haven’t gotten anywhere after all these generations… Nothing’s changed. He [Baldwin] saw into our future what we would be going through,” she said.
Sybil Lang of Maple Grove calls the film “Very powerful, very inspiring.” Both women said it was still too soon to fully process what they saw, but they strongly suggest that the film be seen by everybody. Lang recommended, “It should be in all the schools, in the schoolbooks. Every household should bring their children to see this film.”
DeAndre Morris of Golden Valley said, “I got introduced to a lot of information that I did not know, a lot of footage I’ve never seen. It was very intriguing.”
“I felt Baldwin’s analysis of race in America was very accurate. I thought it was very real, very relevant in the times we are living in. Although a lot of the movie was dark, he is hopeful. His optimism and his commitment to continue fighting, it also was uplifting,” said Lulte Mola of Minneapolis.
William Grier of Minneapolis said the movie will help the viewers of all races “to face their demons.” He added that he “would recommend it to everyone, anyone who cares. Anybody who wants to awaken from the American slumber — how we can change and make things better. It is very on time. It’s heavy and needed.”
Morrow noted that most people she spoke to after the screening said they would see the film again. She predicts the film and 13th — both best documentary nominees, along with best picture nominees Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Fences should make an Oscar “diversity” sweep. “All of them should get Oscars,” said Morrow.
“I’m really happy that we were a part of this,” said Morrow of TCBFF’s advanced screening of I Am Not Your Negro. “This was absolutely amazing. I think this is such a great and beautiful piece of history.”
For more information on I Am Not Your Negro, visit www.iamnotyournegrofilm.com. The film is currently playing at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/minneapolis/lagoon-cinema for show times.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.