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Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro

not negro 2Now playing at the Old Greenbelt Theatre.

Current TV shows and movies—if not real life—might convince you that the mid-20th century has made a comeback. The Amazon series Good Girls Revolt, set in 1969 and depicting underpaid female employees using the Civil Rights Act to sue a prestigious news magazine for the right to work as reporters, resonates with last January’s Million Women March, but Amazon canceled the show despite critical acclaim, strong ratings, and a devoted audience. Apparently not one woman was in the room when senior Amazon executives decided not to renew it. Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature, but antisemitic, racist, and xenophobic hate crimes are at the highest levels in decades.

Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving, and Moonlight depict fully realized African American characters in compelling stories and win top film awards and wide audiences, yet across the country, the rising number of police brutality incidents against African Americans show how little progress we have made in combating racism and inequality. We seem stuck in a 1960s time warp in which everything old is new again, and not in a good way.

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a top contender for the 2017 Best Documentary Academy Award, introduces essayist, novelist, and poet James Baldwin, a towering intellectual figure of the Civil Rights era, to a new generation. Not a biographical sketch, the film only briefly explores Baldwin’s Harlem childhood and Paris expatriate life and casually alludes to his sexual orientation with a mention of an idyllic French country weekend with his lover Lucien. Instead—taking to heart Baldwin’s own words, “Artists are here to disturb the peace”—the film highlights Baldwin’s literary exploration of the intertwined relationship of American culture and American racism.

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The notes for “Remember This House,” Baldwin’s unpublished memoir of his relationships with Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., serve as the film’s starting point. Samuel L. Jackson’s voice-over narration seamlessly integrates archival clips of Baldwin’s university lectures and TV appearances, material from private letters and published essays, and contemporary news footage. The film adopts a chapter format, almost as if Peck were trying to complete Baldwin’s unfinished book.

The most disquieting juxtapositions show the ugly underside of mainstream white popular culture. Imagery of American consumer culture—squeaky clean car commercials and clips from Doris Day and John Wayne films—along with footage of white supremacy rallies underscore how the Great America that today’s political rhetoric wishes to resurrect is a dystopia that excludes those who look like James Baldwin. When a pompous Yale philosophy professor on The Dick Cavett Show chides Baldwin for his obsession with “the race question,” Baldwin responds that White America’s pursuit of its soulless American Dream leaves him no other role than that of despised outsider.

Although I do not rate documentaries, I highly recommend seeing I Am Not Your Negro more than once. This breathtaking work of art does justice to Baldwin’s genius and has haunted me ever since I saw it three weeks ago.

Check the theater website for information about movie times and online tickets: I Am Not Your Negro alternates with The Salesman. Accessibility information: No OC showings. All showings with CC and descriptive audio.


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