Documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” compelling but safe

28 February 2017
James Whisenhunt, Commentary Editor

Raoul Peck’s new documentary provides an inspiring narrative and addresses important issues, but is ultimately a message that students can receive in many other places.

“I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, is an Oscar-nominated documentary based on the work of James Baldwin, an African-American author writing primarily in the 1960s and ‘70s. The film is based on an unfinished piece by Baldwin titled “Remember This House,” where he intended to recount the lives and murders of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and how those men impacted his life.

The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the role of Baldwin recounting what Peck believes the final version of “Remember This House” would look like. Baldwin acts as a guiding figure, talking about the figures mentioned above, the effects of racism in the United States history and the role it currently (meaning in the middle 20th century) plays in American media.

Peck also brings in some modern parallels to drive home the idea that the issues prevalent in Baldwin’s time are still present today. These comparisons are drawn sparingly, but are very clear in their intent to show the modern effects of issues like media representation of black Americans and police brutality. Near the end of the film, there’s also a small clip of former President Barack Obama, a testament to the political power of black Americans.

The film itself was entertaining and brought light to an important issue in American society, past and present, but the film doesn’t seem to do anything more radical than acknowledge the problem. Though “I Am Not Your Negro” tells its story in a compelling way and provides a call to action for white Americans to consider the basis behind their biases, the main issue that comes to surface after the film ends is the realization that it doesn’t seem to say anything that isn’t already being said by plenty of other news articles, movies, blog posts and protests. Especially for students at TU, where there are plenty of events hosted on-campus focusing on racial issues in the US, there’s little reason to see “I Am Not Your Negro” instead of going to one.

After a showing of the film at Circle Cinema last Friday, the theater held a panel with Robert Jackson, an English professor at TU, and Hannibal Johnson, an attorney with a particular interest in the Tulsa race riots in the 1920s. They both delivered speeches reiterating major points of the movie and bringing them even further into the modern day by talking about things like this year’s Oscar nominations and the current lack of political engagement among poor black Americans.
After the speeches, the panel held a Q&A session. Jackson and Johnson didn’t give any life-changing knowledge, but were able to take people’s questions and contextualize them within Baldwin’s work and larger American culture.

All things considered, “I Am Not Your Negro” is a good documentary, and provides an important look at the current and historical state of race relations. The problem doesn’t come with the film itself, but the fact that there are plenty of other places where the same thing is already happening. For those interested in the film, it will almost certainly be enjoyable, but those on the fence can look elsewhere to find a similar message.