SHELLEY SWEENEY reviews a compelling and disturbing documentary about the African American experience.
In NZ Cinemas from September 21
Documentaries shed light on issues with more power than news and a higher level of enlightening context. I Am Not Your Negro has so much to say with so much power that it’s devastating. It’s the true story of a race of people kidnapped by a country that became a home without a welcome. Sadly, it’s also a country whose current president has no interest in changing the cultural status quo.
Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to the work of James Baldwin, American writer and social critic on the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Baldwin died some 30 years ago, but his words live on in this screen-adapted version of his unpublished book Remember This House. This is Baldwin’s commentary on American race relations through the lives and assassinations of his friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Baldwin himself would have been a target if he hadn’t moved to Paris in 1948. During the FBI’s era of illegal surveillance of American writers they had over 1,884 pages in Baldwin’s file as a person of interest. To get that in perspective, they had only 110 pages on white homosexual writer Truman Capote of Breakfast At Tiffany’s fame. According to the FBI, the colour of Baldwin’s skin, his work on civil rights, socialist politics and homosexuality made him a threat to the American way of life.
Director Raoul Peck was born in Haiti, but like James Baldwin also spent time in Brooklyn and France. Peck was the Secretary of Culture in Haiti in 1996 and resigned along with five fellow ministers as a form of protest against Presidents Preval and Aristide. The joint resignations were later recognised as a democratic movement that profoundly changed the country. Peck’s previous film Sometimes In April was about the horrific genocide in Rwanda. Shedding light on injustice and instigating social change is all in a day’s work for Raoul Peck.
The civil rights movement in the United States will be remembered for many things, including African American nun, Sister Rosa Parks refusing to move from the ‘Whites Only’ section of the bus, and images of Elizabeth Eckford walking to her first day at a desegregated high school while white children jeered at her. But for me what stands out is the eloquence of the movement’s most famous leaders, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Their words were powerful and inspired a nation to stand up for (and recognise) racial equality. Both men lost their lives for their beliefs and many others did too. This documentary does a good job of reminding us that these troubled times are not as far behind us as we’d like to think.
Through Baldwin’s eyes we see that the notion of the American Dream never applied to African Americans. The American Dream is about people who chose to emigrate to America to find a better life. The slaves who were taken from their homes in Africa never chose to move and never had the promise of a better life. Their families were torn apart and they were never free. The American Dream was built on their backs and it’s the shame of the nation.
Baldwin’s words soar like poetry over the scenes of violence through the years. There is lynching, rioting, police brutality, and it’s hard on the eyes. Baldwin calls America out on its racist propaganda in film and television. In the past the media only mirrored how the white American public felt about African Americans. Prior to the 1960s the portrayals were of lazy, subservient, comedic and desexualised people (until Sydney Poitier). You have only to watch Jordan Peele’s brilliant horror film Get Out to understand just what the African American mirror reveals about today’s Trump era racial climate. It plays up to the fear of white people being a bit too friendly and it sends a clear message that something isn’t right in America today.
In 1964, Bobby Kennedy foretold the future and said it might be possible in 40 years to have an African American president. Baldwin hit back at this statement saying: “Well, who is Bobby Kennedy? How long has he been around? There have been African people in America for 400 years and all he can say is that if we behave well, one of us might be allowed to become president in 40 years”. Baldwin looks back on his own childhood, where as a young boy he played cowboys and Indians. He was the cowboy, but as he grew older, he realised that he had been the Indian all along. When a race of people grows up in a country that tells them they don’t belong, problems are inevitable.
America has come a long way since the civil rights movement, but the prejudices and wounds of the past are still a long way from healing. Sadly, with President Trump in charge, it feels like things are moving backwards in the not so United States of America.