By Tyler Obropta, Staff Writer
There were a number of documentaries in 2016 that crafted stories about race in ways that deeply, often horrifically, resonate with our current turbulent times. ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America—a fabulous five-part miniseries or unwieldy eight-hour doc, depending on how you chose to consume it—took a look at the racial tension that resulted in the infamous 10-month court case. Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film 13th examines the dehumanization of blacks in the U.S. and the myth of the threatening black felon.
But it’s hard to imagine a more prescient vision of our time than that of James Baldwin. The man was black. He was a writer. He was an activist. The film is I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, in which he fondly remembers his heroes Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and he tragically relives their assassinations and looks ahead to the future of the nation for blacks around the country.
The film is a beautiful assemblage of Baldwin’s interviews and writings, civil rights demonstration footage, still photography and modern news coverage, all deftly compiled by director Raoul Peck and editor Alexandra Strauss. Also helping the fluid documentary are Alexei Aigui’s music and the passionate but surprisingly reserved narration from Samuel L. Jackson himself.
The information covered by the film should not be new to anyone, nor does the film set out to educate people on the history of the American racial struggle. Instead, through the sophisticated voice of Baldwin—my Lord, this man is an excellent speaker—the documentary takes an academic, intellectual approach to its material. Baldwin speaks about the apathy and ignorance at the heart of America’s racial divide, about how young, black boys and girls grow up unaware—for half a dozen years, at least—that the country they were born in and owe their lives and identities to has never thought to evolve a place in itself for African-Americans.
In revisiting monstrous old advertisements featuring grotesque black stereotypes, or in examining the racism inherent in old Hollywood classics Stagecoach and No Way Out, we are provided a sobering dose of anger, shame and regret. When the film cuts from the Watts, Los Angeles, protests of the ‘60s to the rallies in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and we can see how minute the differences are, I Am Not Your Negro succeeds in scaring the shit out of us.
Do not confuse my words: I Am Not Your Negro is not intended to shock. The film is honest, but not manipulative. As I’ve said, it attempts to enlighten, to explain. What future exists for black people in America? Where do we go from here? Was the election of Barack Obama progress, or was it a white nation condescendingly rewarding blacks for hundreds of years of servitude?
Few modern documentaries have such an effective political punch, and few are as intellectually stimulating. If you can’t afford a ticket, Baldwin’s debates and interviews are all over the internet. For the sake of your education, go watch them.