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American Prophet

James Baldwin is Not Your Negro

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“I Am Not Your Negro” is a powerful look at American race relations.
  • “I Am Not Your Negro” is a powerful look at American race relations.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." —James Baldwin

The sometimes-brilliant ABC comedy "Black-ish" focuses on an upper-class mixed race family as they try to hold on to some of their culture while existing in a mostly-white community. A few weeks ago the show did an episode on the recent election and what the reaction was within the black community. When the oldest son becomes politicized and starts quoting Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, his grandfather brings up the importance of James Baldwin, who, to his deep disappointment, his grandson is not familiar with. I can relate, since I, too, was unfamiliar with Baldwin's works.

James Baldwin was a queer black intellectual, social critic, poet, playwright, essayist and novelist who primarily wrote about racism in the United States and the death of modern humanism. In 1979, he announced his next book project as "Remember this House," an autobiographical examination of his friendships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had only written 30 or so pages of notes, but they ring just as true today as they would have then.

"I Am Not Your Negro" beautifully melds the unfinished words of Baldwin's memoir with historical footage curated by director Raoul Peck. Samuel L. Jackson somberly narrates using only Baldwin's eloquent words, creating an incendiary look at how little progress has been made over the last 50 years. Juxtaposing imagery from Birmingham, Alabama or the Watts protests of the 1960s with modern footage of the Ferguson unrest of 2014-2015 gives the film the proper amount of rage it deserves.

The message of this documentary might be lost on anyone who has ever said "All Lives Matter" or compared Syrian refugees to Skittles—a shame since these are the people who need to see this profoundly important documentary the most. Anyone who has ever used the term "social justice warrior" as a pejorative should have their eyes pinned open while watching this, "A Clockwork Orange" style.

The irony is not lost on me that I'm a lower class white male in Central Oregon writing his opinion about a documentary that serves as a rage-filled autopsy for modern race relations. Maybe it's not quite as ironic as the president tweeting about whether the title "Black-ish" is racist or not, but it's up there. "I Am Not Your Negro" is important, as are the words of James Baldwin which ring prophetic in my ears: "The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives whether or not they're going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they have relied on so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it."

I Am Not Your Negro

Dir. Raoul Peck

Grade: A

Tin Pan Theatre

Complete Listings Here


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