( PG – 13, 1h 33mins, 17 Feb 2017(USA), Directed by Raoul Peck)
The nominee for the best documentary feature at the 89th academy awards, I Am Not Your Negro is already considered a cinematic spectacle in its own essence by a variety of critics. The poignant and cogent documentary is realistically scathing the contemporary and prevalent disenfranchisement of African-Americans with a retrospective narration of civil rights era’s horrendous and dehumanizing conditions that prevailed less than a generation ago.
The principle figure in the documentary is the celebrated African-American essaying and novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987). It is based on his unfinished manuscript of the novel Remember This House in which he documented his personal views on the civil right movement, the precarious conditions of African-Americans and his engagements with civil rights activists like Medgar Evers(1925-1963), Malcolm X(1925-1965) and Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) who were all assassinated for their stance and activism on equality, civil liberty and the emancipation of African-Americans from a system that oriented its legitimacy and policies on slavery and Jim crow heritage.
The documentary director is the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. We remember him from his existentially nuanced works, like the documentary Lumumba (2000) which is about the Congolese freedom fighter and first prime minister of independent Congo Patrice Lumumba(1925-1961) who also demised at the hands of US and Belgium intelligence operatives. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson with a sonorous voice that arrests the viewers attention and initiates an irresistible compassionate empathy for the ‘lived experiences’ of African-Americans. Raoul Peck draws much of the narrated script from letters and notes written by James Baldwin during the 1960s and 1970s and wove video clips melodiously with them, and the result is a sublime and original documentary film .
I Am Not Your Negro, is a necessary intervention at a time when the global world is marred by racism, xenophobia and a deleterious identity politics. The resurgence of nationalism based on nativism (Brexit) and the mushrooming of the likes of Donald Trump and ‘strongmen’ across Europe discloses how humanity failed to transcend an excruciating ‘modern’ racism and the failure of ‘project Humanity’ – multiculturalism, Tolerance and plurality. The documentary exposes the facile in modernity’s claimed progress when it comes to issues of race and ‘humanity’ of black people in general.
Raoul Peck, reminds us of this gawking reality that the conditions of African-Americans has not changed at all – think of the Black Lives Matter and Baltimore uprisings. It is hard to avowedly enunciate the difference between what James Baldwin and his ilk faced and the contemporary challenges faced by African-Americans and Black people across the world. We exist in a continued adversary and detrimental conditions – in terms of economic, psychology and identity – that our parents experienced not so long ago. The issues James Baldwin begrudged and grappled with is what this millennial generation articulates and ventures to ‘face and solve’ with all its intricacies. Hamid Dabashi, the Iranian philosopher praised Raoul Peck metaphorically in a recent Aljazeera article that he ‘‘ has poured Baldwin’s beautifully ageing wine in a masterfully crafted new bottle’’.
This year we have witnessed and exulted at the monumental towering of films by Black actors and directors with Moonlight, Fences and The Birth of A Nation taking centre stage in cinema. The subject of their themes has been peculiar to African-American lives and its historiography as it meandered through the turbulent waves of the American dream. James Baldwin emphatically comprehended and discerned the African-American pariah figure and her conditions throughout his oeuvres and director Raoul Peck clothed it with a superficial cinematic poignancy and authenticity. I Am Not Your Negro lacks any blemish and I posit confidently that it’s the documentary-film of this year 2017. Highly recommended for all.
Documentary Trailer : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ol9Tf39jh8
Abdirashid Diriye Kalmoy
Studies at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration,
Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey.