An essential documentary that rewrites history to show the truth.
For many Australian audiences (myself included), the name ‘James Baldwin’ won’t have the same ring to it that Martin Luther King’s does, or Malcolm X’s But hopefully, after seeing Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, now playing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival, they’ll never forget his face, or his name, or what he did for black Americans throughout his lifetime.
A story told in Baldwin’s own words, narrated with wearied reflection by a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s documentary introduces viewers to a complex man with unparalleled speaking powers and a writing style that effortlessly blends prose and poetry. In addition to the narration, striking footage captures the more horrendous moments in American history and movie clips demonstrate the presence of black Americans in Hollywood. Recognising the impact of Baldwin’s achievements and the relevance of his subjects today, Peck includes present-day clips showing police brutality, reminding audiences what this man and his contemporaries stood for is just as relevant today, if not more so.
IANYN rewrites America’s history from the perspective of the Negro. Bit parts from black actors are made the focal points in movies, including Clinton Rosemond in They Won’t Forget (1937), who plays a black janitor working where the body of a young white girl has been found. The terror in Rosemond’s face, Baldwin says, ‘both scared me and strengthened me’. A white academic shows his ignorance on The Dick Cavett Show (1968–1974) when he asks why Baldwin must be so focused on race in his writings, and Baldwin illustrates the threat of death and the ‘social terror’ faced every day by black Americans. The history of America is the history of the Negro, Baldwin says at another point, and this documentary shows how true that is.
It’s important that I acknowledge my own race and privileges, as a white Australian male who couldn’t possibly relate to the experiences of James Baldwin or any other member of a historically mistreated/marginalised race/gender. What I can take away from it, and what I can hope to communicate, is how clear it is that we need more documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro. Just as this one lifts up the rug under which so much prejudice has been swept, so too did Jennifer Peedom’s reportage on the declining Sherpa industry in Sherpa (2015), or Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ expose of the amateur porn industry in Hot Girls Wanted (2015). I can only hope for a documentary that articulates some of the many ignored issues in our own country as powerfully as these documentaries, or indeed as Peck’s, does.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.