Directed by Raoul Peck
United States, 2016, 93 min.
Reviewed by Anne Linstatter
Watching I Am Not Your Negro was devastating to me because I have been privileged not to know most of the truths presented in this 2016 film about racism in America.
In plenary addresses delivered at EEWC-CFT conferences and gatherings, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has often told us that patriarchy is held up by several pillars: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so on. We who fight oppression based on gender have learned not to live with tunnel vision about our issue.
I went to see I Am Not Your Negro because Baldwin had written Notes of a Native Son, a powerful collection of essays, and I care about literature and human experience. However, the subject of the film was not his books or his personal life as a gay man in the 1960s; it was Baldwin’s raw experience of being hated for his color and seeing his friends assassinated.
Years before Baldwin died in 1987, he had written a 30-page prospectus for a book about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—and their deaths by assassination in 1963, 1965, and 1968, respectively. Director Raoul Peck used that text and other writing by Baldwin to create a documentary around the four men, producing a stark picture of racial oppression in the United States.
Baldwin, who had been a preacher in his teens, avoided church membership later in his life because of the Christian hypocrisy underlying the racial divide on Sunday mornings. Therefore, as Christians, we all need to watch and learn from this film. For those of us who are white and claim to follow Jesus, the need to have our eyes opened by this film is urgent.
As the film opens, Baldwin describes why he left the United States in 1948 to live in Paris, explaining that he could think and write better without the constant pressure of racial oppression. By 1957 he had returned, however, to be closer to his family and roots in New York City and to take part in the civil rights movement.
Peck uses wonderful footage of Baldwin with each of the three friends and their families. Then we hear, in Baldwin’s words, where he was when he learned of each death, and we see mourners file past the open caskets. Throughout the film there is footage from the 1950s and 1960s, contrasting black reality with film and television clips of oblivious white Americans. Toward the end, Peck shows close-up photographs of African-Americans lynched— very hard to watch, but those moments are a mild substitute for the suffering experienced by so many.
At one point Robert F. Kennedy encourages Baldwin by saying that someday there may be a black president, and Baldwin comments on the irony of an Irish Catholic from a fairly recent surge of immigration advising hope and patience to a man whose family has been here for centuries.
A constant message in the film is that most of us who are white don’t want to know what others are going through. We prefer the mythology of “we are all equal” or “the slave owners in my family tree were kind to their slaves.” I recognized myself in these people blind to the ferocity of racial oppression. The final scenes provide a few updates, bringing us into the twenty-first century, including news accounts of racism in Ferguson, Missouri, and an uplifting scene of the Obamas as first family. I thought I Am Not Your Negro would win the award for best documentary feature in the 2017 Oscars. Nothing can touch it for quality and seriousness. Another nominee, 13th, focuses on how imprisonment has perpetuated slavery. One phrase in the 13th Amendment—“except as punishment for crime”—makes servitude legal, whether through minor charges, Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, or the three-strike law, 1 I was shocked to learn that one of four African-American men is jailed at some point in his life. 13th, however, lacks the elegant focus on three martyrs and Baldwin’s powerful narration, presented from recorded speeches, appearances on talk shows, and his own writing, read by Samuel L. Jackson.
Neither I Am Not Your Negro nor 13th won for best documentary, however. The TV series O. J.: Made in America took the prize. Shown last June in five parts, a total of 7 ½ hours, on ESPN and, briefly, in a few theaters, it was called, “A towering achievement” by a Washington Post reviewer. O. J. Simpson’s story intertwined “numerous contemporary obsessions: sports, race, celebrity, crime, even sex,” wrote Kenneth Turan, reviewer for the Los Angeles Times.
People like that sort of thing, and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted for the closely documented tragedy of O.J.’s rise and fall. My husband watched the whole thing, as well as American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, a TV miniseries (aired in February 2016) in which Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson.
I refused to watch either one. I lived through it once, and once was enough. Wearing buttons that said, “Squeeze the Juice,” my friends and I attended football games in which our college played the USC team, with Simpson as running back. Fifteen years later my kids performed in a dance recital with Sydney Simpson three hours before the murders. Then my husband and I endured the fifteen-month televised trial, trying to keep our young children from hearing much about it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that a drama with black-man-as-criminal took the Oscar, rather than the drama of a great American writer watching his friends, civil rights leaders, fall one by one to guns held by white men. That’s the way things work in this country. The good news is that each of these three documentary nominees exposes viewers to the complex history of American racism.
I urge all of you, as Christians and feminists, to watch I Am Not Your Negro and live with Baldwin through these difficult years of American history. Our struggle for gender justice depends on understanding the many other ways our society oppresses people.
I. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
II. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation
© 2017 by Christian Feminism Today