Call to Witness by Nico Wheadon

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro testifies that James Baldwin’s embattled America is still our own.

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A crowd gathers on August 23, 1963 for The March on Washington, one of the largest rallies in US history, as seen in I Am Not Your Negro, 2016. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary feat that draws much of its complexity from corralling the all-too-obscure history of race in the United States. A brilliant translator of this narrative, Haitian filmmaker and activist Raoul Peck adapts the unfinished, final novel by James Baldwin—provisionally titled Remember This House—as a framing device to unpack broader issues of power and privilege. Peck—to whom the few pages of the original manuscript were entrusted by the writer’s estate—expertly matches Baldwin’s prophetic lyricism with his own highly innovative approach. He juxtaposes images of today’s political movements with Baldwin’s manifestos and archival clips from the civil rights era, employing film’s ability to collapse time and space to challenge the truth of American progress.

Riffing wholly off the tone and tenor of the manuscript, I Am Not Your Negro intimately recalls the fates of three assassinated civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. For Baldwin, this novel was to be immensely personal, as he set out to expound his own life through revering his fallen friends, all essential allies during the ’50s and ’60s. The film buoys this intimacy throughout, harnessing the powerful voice of Baldwin at every turn. Furthermore, it employs the book’s biographical framework to underscore activism’s role in exposing the porous nature of the Constitution upon which this country has been so precariously built.

Diverging from the documentary convention of fragmented interviews with talking, tokenized heads, I Am Not Your Negro breaks all sorts of other codes, deconstructing traditional barriers between expert and novice, bourgeoisie and proletariat, performer and audience. Recalling Baldwin’s plea that we all bear witness to the harsh realities of our times, clips that demand eye contact with historic oppressors are brought to the foreground. We are presented with scenes of brutality in their entirety to avoid sensationalizing or normalizing racial violence. Here, film editing is a tool to promote viewer engagement; it enables an audience to position itself in relation to the ailing democracy that Evers, X, and King gave their lives to defend.

Despite the film’s reliance on borrowed words and remixed source materials, Peck puts forth a dynamic assemblage that makes use of the cinema poetics that have become his trademark. At times hard to watch—yet impossible to overlook—images from the civil rights movement are presented in color, rather than the black and white of history books, complicating the nostalgia they evoke. And he goes a step further by inserting them into our contemporary media dialogue. Baldwin’s futurist passages teleport us to current social injustices, underscoring the timelessness and growing importance of his reflections. Indeed, what’s most stirring is that—despite the almost half-century separating Baldwin’s lectures from the police shootings in Ferguson, Charlotte, and Orlando (to name only a few)—his words ring loud and clear against the lived experience of many African-Americans today.

Toward the beginning of the film Baldwin asserts, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” And toward the end he declares, “History is not the past, it is our present.” It strikes me that what Baldwin really confronts—and what this film so gracefully epitomizes—is the vacuum of accountability that permeates how this country remembers the past and inhabits its wake. While neither Baldwin nor the film go so far as to offer solutions to the vast rifts that fundamentally divide our country, both nod to the role each and every one of us can play in foregrounding the essential truth that all men are created equal. Both give us a document, a verifiable record of note, that implodes the fallacy that “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is a freedom afforded all Americans.

I Am Not Your Negro will be in theaters February 3, 2017.

Nico Wheadon is director of public programs and community engagement at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as an independent writer, photographer, and cultural producer. She has contributed to NOTOFU, Studio Magazine, ArtVoices, NuktaArt: Contemporary Art Magazine of Pakistan, and Distorted Magazine, along with numerous artist books and exhibition catalogues.

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