My Takeaways From Documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a documentary that was released in 2014 inspired by what was going to be James Baldwin’s next project before his death, “Remember This House.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is an Acadamy Award-nominated documentary directed by Raoul Peck based on James Baldwin’s incomplete manuscript “Remember This House.” The film expands upon the available material and delves into the black experience in America. It incorporates Baldwin’s personal account of the lives and assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evens; men who are described as very different but together tell the singular story of America. The usage of historical clips, movie scenes, TV interviews, and Baldwin’s very words seek to highlight the influences of the civil rights movement and America’s failure in sustaining equal rights for all its citizens, as it seeks to do in modern day. The themes incorporated are all frighteningly relevant to our current civil unrest circumstances, which transforms the film itself into a rare opportunity for viewers to reflect on where we stand as a country today. There are so many quotable moments in the movie that I feel I cannot do justice to knowing all it represents. Nevertheless, I will attempt best to explore the richness of the presented work righteously.

One crucial reason why Baldwin’s message is transmitted so effectively is the strategic collage of footage and emotional elements incorporated by Raoul Peck. How the arguments present themselves and intertwine with each other keeps the audience engaged, adding to the film’s mesmerizing nature. You can see Peck’s creative utilization of images to communicate a more profound message at one point in the film where an audio montage of voices (all of famous white politicians) repeat the words “I’m sorry.” At this moment, Baldwin vocalizes his concern for the United States normalization of narrow-mindedness. He begins to say that particular American virtues are simplicity and sincerity, which consequently transform themselves into immaturity; this prevents specifically white politicians from taking responsibility for their actions and allows them to remain in their state of ignorance with no necessity to ‘grow up’. I feel this moment in the film perfectly fits what Baldwin seeks to communicate through his narrative. The purpose of the footage containing apologetic sentiments is to sustain Baldwin’s argument recognizing the black population’s struggle for liberation over time, which one cannot with empty words. When Baldwin says ‘growing up’, I believe he refers to the ability to do more than offer an aimless apology. Instead, to show maturity, white politicians and the entirety of the white population must break free from the comfortability of ignorance and collaborate in resolving issues that may not directly affect them as individuals. This is an impactful realization for white viewers like me because we are given a relevant example of how ignorance is still deeply rooted in our society. Even those leading our country are showing signs of passiveness. Overall, the montage was extremely effective, and Baldwin’s words were sobering as they are alarmingly relevant to our modern racial climate.

Another quotable moment in the film is when Baldwin notes that MLK and Malcolm X were “two men… poles apart, driven closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see and for which he paid with his life, and that Malcolm was one of the people that Martin saw on the mountaintop.” These two men are often represented as opposites, or even enemies in popular culture, yet Baldwin’s depiction differs. Martin Luther King Jr. was frequently portrayed as a nonviolent force for change, while Malcolm X was often characterized as a “by-any-means-necessary” leader. Though their strategies for reaching their goals were different (most likely due to their extremely distinct upbringings), they nevertheless fought for the same fundamental reason, equal rights in America. Both were civil rights activists that had similar visions for America’s future, a safe country for all free of racial prejudice. Baldwin recognizes this similarity; both Malcolm and Martin are on the same revolutionary side and have dedicated their lives to the silenced. Arguably, Malcolm and his supporters were viewed as radicals, which helped Martin’s movement become more palatable by the white community, though others believe Martin’s nonviolent means were useless. Baldwin’s interpretation is significant because it shows us how those with polarized surface-level beliefs can become more similar over time and with in-depth analysis. In a way, the movements we see today have been heavily influenced by both of these historical civil rights activists despite their original differences.

At the end of the film, Baldwin is seen giving a speech demanding reflection on the racial slur used by white Americans against black Americans. James Baldwin states: “It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger on whom they’ve relied for so long. What white people have to do is to try to find out — find out in their own hearts — why it was necessary to have a n — — — in the first place. ’Cause I’m not a n — — -, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n — — — then you need it — so the question the white population has to ask themselves is — if I’m not the n — — — here and you, the white people, invented it, then you have to figure out why. The future of this country relies on that. On whether or not I was able to ask that question.” The quote offers Baldwin’s insight on how he believes we can move forward as a country and how white Americans can contribute their critical contribution to a solution; they must escape their state of comfortability and ignorance. Understanding why there was a necessity for alienation towards those that were part of the black community is pivotal. By understanding why this racial hierarchy was created, we learn the oppressive nature of past white individuals, which we must do to move forward. As a white American, I believe that this racial slur was created to degrade, suppress, and maintain power over a race that was seen as less human. Though I may never truly learn why it was deemed necessary for the white population various years ago to invent such a word, other white Americans and I can seek to understand its origin and condemn its usage.

In conclusion, there is so much that we can learn from and dissect in this documentary. It is incredibly dense and has so much to digest. By the end of the film, we can all begin to understand America’s shameful history of racial inequality and apply it to the contemporary conversation of race today in the United States. Baldwin’s personal account of the civil rights movement and the activists highlighted overall has helped remind us that though we have improved from past circumstances, there is still much work to be done together.

5. At one point in the film, there was an audio montage of voices (some very recognizable) saying “I’m sorry.” What was the purpose — and the impact — of this moment in the film, on both the narrative arc, and on you as a viewer?

6. Baldwin notes that MLK and Malcolm X were “two men… poles apart, driven closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see and for which he paid with his life, and that Malcolm was one of the people that Martin saw on the mountaintop.” These two men are often represented as opposites, or even enemies, in popular culture. How does Baldwin’s depiction differ? Why is this difference significant?

11. Discuss, explore, and analyze the following quote from James Baldwin: “It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger on whom they’ve relied for so long. What white people have to do is to try to find out — find out in their own hearts — why it was necessary to have a n — — — in the first place. ’Cause I’m not a n — — -, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a n — — — then you need it — so the question the white population has to ask themselves is — if I’m not the n — — — here and you, the white people, invented it, then you have to figure out why. The future of this country relies on that. On whether or not I was able to ask that question.”

The crevices of my mind