Monday, February 6, 2017

Movie with Abe: I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro
Directed by Raoul Peck
Released February 3, 2017

There were many influential players during the height of the civil rights movement. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, are widely-known by almost all Americans, while others, like Medgar Evers and James Baldwin, are fondly remembered by those with a more intimate knowledge of the times as among the most important figures who helped to achieve the beginnings of change in America. Baldwin, a novelist who regularly spoke publicly about the subjugation of African-Americans, died in 1987, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript that offers incredible commentary on race in America that feels especially relevant today.

Award-winning actor Samuel L. Jackson, who in recent years has become famous for numerous appearances as the eye-patch-wearing Nick Fury in almost every Marvel project, serves as the narrator of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film assembled from Baldwin’s writings. Jackson speaks Baldwin’s words as written on the page, and they are accompanied by images of formative and crucial events in civil rights history. Stills and video of recent and current racially-motivated instances show that the problem has not been fixed in any way in contemporary society, and that everything Baldwin spoke and wrote about is just as prevalent in today’s America as it was when he was alive and speaking out to address the issues facing the nation.

There is an immense power to be found in the pairing of Baldwin’s words and the images that are presented to illustrate his ideas. The film reaches its most unsettling and uncomfortable points when it showcases clips from popular films of the time that show an idealized vision of happiness that is entirely white, often with African-American people in positions of subservience. Zooming in quite literally on an ad that features a smiling white family with an African-American servant is enormously effective and deeply disquieting. This is a documentary whose direction by Raoul Peck and editing by Alexandra Strauss are vital to its success, adapting an unfinished work written thirty years ago to create a film that feels like it was created explicitly for the present moment.

This film, which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, first premiered in Toronto in September and, after a short qualifying run in December, is out in theaters at another turning point in American history, when so many, particularly those with loud voices in Hollywood, are not happy with their president and the direction in which he is taking the country. Coupled with another nominee, “13th,” this film presents an excellent argument for the vitality of the documentary and its ability to foment change, a fitting testament to Baldwin’s legacy. It’s hardly a pleasant experience, but an important and contemplative one.


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