Revisiting James Baldwin's writing from decades past, this documentary shows just how little the Black experience in the US has changed.
Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's masterpiece, I Am Not Your Negro, was released in 2016, but is based on James Baldwin's last unpublished book, Remember This House. I am not Your Negro captures Baldwin's reflections on the assassinations of his three close friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, in the height of the civil rights movement. It also draws on Baldwin's lived experiences as a Black man in America who lived from 1924-1987 and his active writing career that spanned over four decades.
Baldwin's reflections in his writing focus on the contradictory values and ideals – and the fact that Black and white people in the US might as well live on different planets, given their completely divergent experiences. The timeliness and relevance of this documentary even more than half a century after Baldwin initially formed some of his thoughts, points to the fact that while in theory much has changed, the reality is completely different. Black bodies and Black lives are still as expendable as they have been for over 400 years.
In the wake of George Floyd's murder, Baldwin's words remain with us, "The story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story. What can we do?" It is America's continued denial and burial of this story that will ensure the country is forced to keep reliving its past—trading strange fruit swinging on trees for black bullet-ridden bodies lying on the streets, in the name of police brutality. Those who have the benefit of ignorance, those who can choose to remain ignorant about racism as it doesn't affect them, will lament about the particular incident, "This is so tragic! I can't believe this! This cop should go to jail." It will be easier for them to think of it as an isolated, tragic, newsworthy incident, but nothing more as any deeper introspection will force them to examine the brutal, continued violence meted out under white supremacy and their complacence if not active engagement in it.
In the documentary, Baldwin poignantly reflects on this white innocence/white surprise when talking about the 1963 civil rights demonstrations and the unequal state violence that the peaceful demonstrators were met with, "White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren't. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don't want to believe still, less to act on the belief that what is happening in Birmingham, is happening all over the country."
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: ©Bob Adelman, all rights reserved
After George Floyd's killing, I immersed myself in social media as likely most of you did. On my timelines, most of the Black people were obviously appalled by what happened, but not at all surprised. Racism only comes as a surprise to the group responsible for it, it seems. For Black people worldwide, who have faced the brutalizing effects of white supremacy – there is very little that surprises them about the atrocities that can be carried out on Black bodies without any repercussions. How can Black people be shocked when only months earlier, 26 year old medical technician, Breonna Taylor, was shot eight times in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky, when three plainclothes policemen barged into her home on a no-knock search warrant. There would be no repercussions for the senseless taking of her life.
A month before that, unarmed 25-year-old, Ahmaud Arbery would be gunned down by two white civilians when jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. It would take three months for any charges to be brought against his murderers. This would happen only because of those fighting for justice who believe and reiterate that #BlackLivesMatter even when the State constantly shows that they don't. It is true that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. America finds itself in this endless loop and the deja-vu has reached breaking point for Black people.
"It is the story of America that America wishes could be buried and forgotten, but is doomed to keep reliving until they actually confront it"
The unconventional documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, juxtaposes Baldwin's words (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) with a myriad of images and footage that span the American experience – African Americans being lynched followed by a monotony of apologetic politicians, images from modern pop culture, clips from classic old films and photographs of Black Lives Matter protestors. All this clearly draws the line that alluta continua. Despite what the mainstream white society would like to believe, the past is not the past and has not been neatly packaged and archived.
In a 2017 interview with Okayafrica, Peck remarked, "It's always great the way Baldwin wrote … because it's always a mixture: part history lesson, part deconstruction, but also parts of very intimate thoughts and also of poetry. It's always a mixture of different aspects, which I like, which I try to do in all my films, to create a work of art. Baldwin knew how to do that. He knew how to be an intellectual, but at the same time, to be a human being. You can always understand him, no matter what your level of education is. He talks the talk of the street, with substance and eloquence. His eloquence is multifaceted."
Peck in I Am Not Your Negro, beautifully completes James Baldwin's work. This is a gripping, thought-provoking, sobering documentary. More than that though, it is the story of America that America wishes could be buried and forgotten, but is doomed to keep reliving until they actually confront it.
As an African, I cannot claim to fully understand the horrors of what African Americans have endured for generations, the intergenerational trauma or the resilience of the people who somehow this country has not yet broken, despite its greatest attempts to do so. As a Black person though, I stand in solidarity with my kin in saying that white supremacy and the havoc it has wreaked globally, has gone on for too long. As they carried out a memorial for George Floyd in Ghana, and people in different African cities marched in protest after his killing, it's a reminder that while the current round of this battle has its base in the US, the fight against white supremacy and anti-blackness is a global one.
I am not your Negro is free to watch till the end of June online at CinemAfrica in solidarity with Black Lives Matter movement globally.