2016 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: Following magnificent and sophisticated documentaries about the civil rights movement, “I Am Not Your Negro” from Raoul Peck had huge shoes to fill. Seemingly struggling to find its footing earlier on in the picture, by the mid-way point, the film finds its way to an ending that will leave you in tears.
“I Am Not Your Negro” chronicles writer James Baldwin, from his own words. It tells the story of race in modern America from his unfinished novel, “Remember This House.”
Narrated by a restrained and unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, the film presents a compelling case of history that is still just as relevant and prudent today. From archival footage of Baldwin himself, the film takes a look into Baldwin’s colleagues of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and many more. Director Peck also weaves into the time of the era, looking at films from Sidney Poitier, Hattie McDaniel and John Wayne. He talks about the starting point of African-Americans with slavery, and the current climate in which they live and what others fail to see.
Samuel L. Jackson reads the words, which are densely powerful, all meant to relish in the shame that has beset our nation for far too long. He speaks about trying to adapt “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and sitting by his poolside when he learned Dr. King had been shot. He goes into great detail about the King’s funeral, detailing how he didn’t want to cry because he felt if he started than he might never stop. Jackson captures all these emotions with his delicate yet authoritative tone, which in strange ways becomes his greatest performance of his career that’s not a performance at all.
It’s difficult to see these films of the civil rights era – such as this and Ava DuVernay’s “13th” – being so true in today’s dour climate. As we sit on the eve of a critical presidential election, Baldwin’s words about Bobby and Robert Kennedy not wanting to march with African-Americans becomes such a raw truth to where we exist today. The most powerful bit by any stretch is archival footage of one of Baldwin’s interviews where he responds to Bobby Kennedy’s remarks about one day in 40 years, we could have an African-American president. Images of Barack and Michelle Obama in the presidential parade end up meaning so much more on the backdrop of his influential and robust words.
“I Am Not Your Negro’s” first swing at bat is admittedly unfocused. It weaves in and out of its own mission by not providing enough context into its agenda. Once the gas tank is full, however, it launches at full speed ahead, placing the audience into the framework of the African-American struggle. Black Panthers, activists, and James Baldwin’s own ambiguity with sexuality is touched upon, explored and eventually laid at the feet of the viewer to digest.
There’s a wholeness that’s found when the credits begin to roll. Audience members clapped uproariously by the end, from a crowd that was predominately white. Watching the screening just two seats away from current Academy Awards president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a woman who has beaten all the odds to rise to one of the leading figures for all minorities to admire, makes the film sing so much more.
I often wondered, as many current, young minorities surely do, what would my place have been during the civil rights movement? Is there a James Baldwin inside of me somewhere? Would I have been one of the unlucky to succumb to violence and hatred in a time that was affected by its poisons? Baldwin asks those questions, perhaps not directly with words, but the beauty and power of literature and film is that it transcends its own time and place. It speaks to the now.