I was not aware of the existence of I Am Not Your Negro, when I saw the poster advertising it at the Carolina Theatre in Durham at the beginning of the year. It somehow looked all wrong: a picture depicting James Baldwin, an old b&w picture, his eyes magnified to gigantic proportions. My curiosity was tickled: I learned about the participation of Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to the documentary, credited in the poster. Somehow, there and then, I had a feeling this was an old production, from the nineties maybe? An old documentary being replayed in this old-fashioned theatre. Then I realised that IANYN was actually nominated for the 2017 Oscars in the documentary category and eventually I caught up with it a couple of days before its London release at the Barbican main cinema, bundled with a Q&A session with the director, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck.
During the screening, I see James Baldwyn for the first time, lecturing students, defending his points in TV discussions against ancient professors poorly defending the status quo. He is elegantly dressed and I can only admire him while he quickly disentangles complexities in front of our eyes like quicksilver. His troubled, brooding, intensely worried eyes were piercing me.
The pace of the documentary follows Baldwin’s troubled appearance, the montage work must have been of mammoth proportions: viewing and choosing historical footage, interspersed with current footage of unrest, the same unrest that sparked the civil rights movement, with footage of the Obamas in power in the White House, a historical landmark, unimaginable during Baldwin’s time. Voiced by S. L. Jackson, Baldwin recalls Bobby Kennedy’s horror at the sheer thought… his attitude: “yes, wouldn’t it be nice, but we are not ready for it, neither am I going to do anything about it.” BK’s disgusted expression at the thought of having black people in power, was more eloquent than thousands of deceptively progressive promises.
I paraphrase Baldwin’s thoughts in the film here: “we were being fed the same dream, we all wanted to be like John Wayne, but then we grew up and we woke up to the streets surrounding us, the people surrounding us and their perception of us, their hatred of our appearance.” He escaped to France, at the time less superficially racist and since how quickly the whole world has forgotten his legacy. Raoul Peck’s work is not only a celebration, but a testimony to the importance of remembrance.
Visually, I found the drone footage of the bayou being projected à propos of nothing in particular, quite spectacular. The Q&A after the projection of the documentary enlightened us about how complex the actual work was and how long it actually took to handle it as the production has kept independent from external hands and influences. The result is complex, mature, philosophical, informative though difficult to process. An inspiring evening.
I Am Not Your Negro, dir. Raoul Peck, Barbican cinema 4 April 2017