i-am-not-your-negro

This post was originally published on News Cult in 2017.

Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Raoul Peck

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for a Little More Explicitness Than the Title

Release Date: February 3, 2017 (Limited)

Nobody wants a documentary entitled I Am Not Your Negro to still be timeless in 2017, but here we are. The film is based on Remember This House, a manuscript by Harlem Renaissance writer James Baldwin that remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1987. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words, because when you want a voice to expound upon the legacy and persistence of racism in America, Sam is your man.

With its mix of archival news footage, still photography, and other various media clips (old movies to represent the American myth, game shows to represent capitalism), I Am Not Your Negro is not your typical cinematic experience. It plays more like a museum exhibit with a visual component. But please do not let the edutainment implication that description might inspire scare you away. I just want to make sure you know what you are in for. This is a vibrant, exciting experience, different though it may be.

But I do not want to discount the educational value. The film places Baldwin squarely in the context of the civil rights movement. He was an important figure right alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but he seems to be shunted off to a different historical pocket, perhaps because of his status as an artist. I fear that tendency is a grave mistake, especially in today’s climate.

Finally, dear viewers, pay particular attention to the scenes from Baldwin’s appearance on a 1968 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss shows up to challenge Baldwin’s perspective, and the resulting rhetorical scuffle is a powerful display of the importance of listening and insisting that voices be heard and ideals be put into action.

I Am Not Your Negro is Recommended If You Like: Staying Woke, the Harlem Renaissance, the Dulcet Tones of Samuel L. Jackson

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Artist-Activists

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