As students filed into Cornell Cinema on February 8th to watch I Am Not Your Negro, a quiet fell over the crowd. The documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Raoul Peck, tells the story of James Baldwin’s relationship with three influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement — Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X — until each of their untimely deaths. The film also uses Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript of the same name to explore the relationships between blacks and whites in America, and further examine the role of blacks in American society. The documentary allows the audience to look at race in America from a different point of view. Baldwin didn’t see himself as an activist, but still used his gift of writing to speak out and to help blacks and whites become aware of the severe racial issues in the United States.
What separates I am Not Your Negro from most other documentaries is that it tells the perspective solely from Baldwin’s point of view. There are no other commentators or people giving their opinion, allowing the audience to, in a way, enter Baldwin’s mind. The film transforms James Baldwin’s manuscript into an exclusive look at race relations in the 1960s and 70s, and especially highlights how much further our country has to go.
The documentary moves through its different themes and important events using three vital figures in the Civil Rights Movement to tell the story of how black civil rights evolved and to show the progress still yet to be made. In this film, we see Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers from Baldwin’s perspective as mentors, professional colleagues, and–most importantly–friends. Baldwin’s opinions on the three men shape the audience’s view of the Civil Rights Movement becoming a force to be reckoned with. The film beautifully emphasizes that these men, though powerful and influential in the movement, were also normal human beings with their own personal struggles. I Am Not Your Negro illustrates how these lives were just one price paid for black equality in the United states, and underlines that their unfinished legacy must still be carried out.
The film’s biggest downfall was the choice to disregard Baldwin’s sexuality as integral to his experience. Baldwin was one of the few authors who were publicly gay at the time, and one of few black male icons that identified as such. Although it was mentioned in the film once, it was not a true part of the documentary. Omitting Baldwin’s identity as a gay man, which is incorporated heavily in most of his novels, took a dimension away from the film. I was yearning for what Baldwin felt as a man targeted in more ways than one, especially since he moved to Paris in the middle of his career to escape America’s. Intersectionality may not have been much discussed in the 60s, but Baldwin’s identity as a gay black man could have added more perspective to the film, and one that many more people can now openly relate to.
This film proved to be both vital and timely. Its Oscar nomination proves more than valid as this dynamic and necessary documentary brings light to many issues that still exist in America today. No matter who you are or how you identify, this film will speak to you. There isn’t just one message to take away, because this film will make you think critically about how we can change what race means in this country.