“I Am Not Your Negro” is an essential piece of 21st century American cinema and it will most definitely be a landmark of what 2017 film world has to offer. As James Arthur Baldwin reaches his dark brown fingers up from his grave and into our world through director Raoul Peck’s eloquent filmmaking skills, I can’t help but wonder how happy the writer might be. “I Am Not Your Negro” is the visual revival of “Remember This House,” an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin that aimed to tell the tragic stories of three American martyrs, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers, who also happened to be good friends with Baldwin. With style and grace and eloquence, Peck juxtaposes Baldwin’s transcripts and interviews, vocally portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, with visuals of current-day struggles in race relations and ends up with a work of art that, surprisingly, draws in and challenges white people.
Peck seems to direct this movie to white people, by showing clips of prominent landmarks of American culture — Cowboy vs. Indian movies, jazz and Hollywood — then immediately showing images of white men, women and children standing indifferently below black bodies swinging from ropes in trees, images of white supremacists toting their precious confederate flag, and white people essentially living the American Dream while dancing over the blood of black people. Peck’s documentary will likely make white people uncomfortable from the minute they try to buy their ticket. I can almost see them struggling with the deliberation about whether they should ask the young black clerk for two tickets to “I Am Not Your…” and then hope he knows what they mean. Or maybe they’ll just ask for tickets to “The Baldwin Movie.” The documentary essentially answers all the questions around why can’t we say “All Lives Matter” or say “I see no color” and “That’s just the past.” This movie is a direct response to white people asking us, “Why can’t you get over it? Why are you still mad?” The film replies quite beautifully, “Because it hasn’t ended.”
Every soul who is able should bear witness to the blessing that is “I Am Not Your Negro,” but especially white people. Imagine James Baldwin holding a mirror up to your face and telling you to look into it and you obey him because, duh, it’s James Baldwin. In it you see and almost begin to feel the pain and agony an entire population of people endured purely because of the color of their skin as your relatives and ancestors enjoyed their picket fences and tea parties and church bazaars and — what’s that called again? — oh, their white privilege, that they oh so kindly passed onto you.
Even though it’ll be leaving theaters soon to retreat to its home on Amazon Prime Video, the Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” is a must-see for all teens in Atlanta and across the nation, especially because Baldwin is now virtually nonexistent in a majority of our literature classes. If our schools won’t educate us on more than just a few African-American writers, we must go out and indulge in the nectar of knowledge on our own. It’s the sweetest nectar of all.
Thalia, a banned-book reader extraordinaire, is a senior at DeKalb School of the Arts. She is actually the reincarnation of James Baldwin, but a little less cool. She dreams of being just as good a writer as he was.