Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)
Initially an expose of the modern history of the United States as seen from the viewpoint of black US author and activist James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) and serving as a personal memoir of his early experiences and meetings with black activist leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, this film becomes an exploration and critique of American culture and values generally. Director Raoul Peck based the film on Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House” and extends the work to the present day to demonstrate that the pervasive racial discrimination of white people against black people back in Baldwin’s time continues – as does also black people’s resistance against that discrimination, as exemplified by (in Peck’s view) the Black Lives Matter movement.
With voiceover narration from actor Samuel L Jackson, who reads from Baldwin’s work, the film moves back and forth in time, which can make following it hard, but there is a general chronological order and structure shaped around Evers, Malcolm X and King. Baldwin remembers early childhood experiences of watching Hollywood Western films and identifying with the “good guy” cowboys, not realising that the Injuns being shot could just as easily have been replaced by upstart black people. He later comes to see how much Hollywood brainwashes people to see the world in terms of, well, black and white, and how Hollywood films serve to inculcate a particular paradigm of how the world supposedly operates. There is nothing in the film though how that paradigm influences not just black people like himself to accept their place in US society but also brainwashes white people to believe they are special and to believe in violence as the only acceptable tool to confront and solve problems.
With archival film footage, the film shows Baldwin advocating on behalf of black people in talk shows, arguing why racism continues in spite of the apparent social and economic progress black people were making in the 1960s. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King loom large as two leaders whose opinions and leadership styles were as polarised as could be, to the extent of Malcolm X accusing King of being an Uncle Tom for adopting a non-violent approach emphasising love and compassion.
Where the film really could have taken off and become something very special is in moments where Baldwin criticises American society generally for its materialism and consumerism which cover over its soullessness and an unwillingness to confront and own up to the brutality and psychological violence meted out to black people over 200 years of its history. There could have been an exploration of how the US controls its people through a mix of both hard power (such as genocide, the use of police and discriminatory laws to keep minority groups in positions of inferiority) and soft power (through culture and education) which also serve to divide and rule people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and other categories; but perhaps this was going too far for Peck who keeps the discussion within a narrow framework of whites-versus-blacks.
Unfortunately from this film, excellent in parts though it might be for showing rare archived film footage about the black American struggle for social, political and economic equality, and for detailing how Hollywood reflected and upheld racial inequality, I get no indication that either Baldwin or Peck sees beyond the white-black racial divide to realise that both white and black people – and plenty of other groups in US society – are being crushed alike by capitalist ideology and the systems and institutions that support it. Discrimination on the basis of race among other artificial categories is just one method of keeping people weak and divided – and set against each other – so that the elites who control them can continue to exploit them.
At a time when both white and black people, and others as well, most need to unite and recognise their common oppressors, “I Am Not Your Negro”, by allying itself to the Black Lives Matter movement – known to be infiltrated by US billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – is actually a step backwards in the wrong direction.