That inconvenient nigger is here to wreak havoc to your shady American freedom – I am not your Negro is a very provocative piece that uses incendiary language in order to inflame a deeply unequal, biased, hypocritical and racist society: the United States of America. The film will burst every myth of racial equality and democracy in the most powerful country in the world, and it’s an indispensable watch to all nationalities, races and creeds. Needless to say, the movie has acquired an extra dimension and significance since the toxic wave of reactionary politics brought in by Donald Trump swallowed the nation.
This documentary film by Raoul Peck is based on James Baldwin’s (pictured above) unfinished manuscript Remember This House and narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson. It explores the history of racism in the US through Baldwin’s memories of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as their tragic and untimely death.
By the means of historical interviews, footage and photographs, Peck creates a poignant portrait of racism in the US, revealing that equality has always been but an illusion. He also uses excerpts from historical movies with racist content such as Uncle Tom’s Boat (Harry A. Pollard, 1927) and Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) as well as films that deal with the subject of racism, such as Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934) and The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958). Many activists disliked the latter for its complacent tone: Sidney Poitier’s character reconciles with his white nemesis despite the oppression he suffered. Incidentally, the legendary black actor turned 90 yesterday.
But it’s the clever montage that makes I am not your Negro so provocative and explosive. The director cleverly contrasts a 1960 US government advert promoting “freedom” against images of police oppression made at the same time. If the film was made now, Peck would probably contrast Donald Trump’s ridiculous America First speech – which the entire world has been mocking – against the Ferguson riots. In another key moment, the director boldly claims that “America is not the land of the free, but it’s sometimes the land of the brave”, followed by images from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003). In other words, America’s braveness expresses itself through a school massacre. Finally, he places images of a jolly Doris Day prancing around against Black people hung in trees – the significance of this montage does not require a written description.
James Baldwin’s vigour and intelligence help to sustain what’s already a very convincing piece of documentary-making. The unapologetic, unabashed and confrontational demeanour of late American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic is a leitmotif in the film, as well as in the history of the US. He has no qualms at challenging the establishment, and the director supports him in his courageous endeavour. Quotes and titles appear throughout the movie on a black and white screen, with a twist of red. It’s almost as if both the writer and the filmmaker were saying: “yes, it’s that black and white: the US is a racist society. Now move your ass and do something about it“.
I am not your Negro was directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, and the nationality of the director here is very significant. Haiti saw the most successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection in the Americas, shortly after American Independence. The event shocked the US, which responded with continuous repression and boycotting of the newly-formed democracy. This theme is not addressed in the movie, but the irony of history is pervasive to those who know the origin of the filmmaker and a little bit about Haiti’s history.
This piece was originally published during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, when the film premiered in the UK. It is out in cinemas on Friday, April 7th (2017), and it’s out on all major VoD platforms in April 2018.