I Am Not Your Negro

2016 documentary

Rating: 16/20

Plot: James Baldwin died before finishing a project on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This documentary uses text from that unfinished project, Baldwin interviews, and archival footage to finish it.

I didn't even need to watch this because I don't even see color.

I'm sure there are some ignorant but well-meaning human beings who might say that, and those people are precisely the people who do need to see this. This reminds us that "not seeing color" isn't the right thing to do at all; indeed, the right thing to do is to see color, see it in its historical context and in the middle of present ongoing turmoil and oppression.

I teach an adult basic education class and was having a conversation with one of my students who is from some country in South America. I try not to ask them directly where my students from other countries are from because it's not a question I have to put up with as a white guy and it just doesn't seem fair. He became a citizen in the 90s, has traveled in Canada and Europe, and was in various parts of the United States before eventually settling in Indiana. He told me--in the most non-racist way this could sound--that he sees a lot of blacks as lazy because they're unwilling to work hard and make their lives better. My argument was that his assessment was unfair because it takes away 200 years of context. He acknowledged that things were bad in the past, but I couldn't get him to see that all of that stuff in the past began a heinous series of cause-and-effects that have led to the present, a present that still contains a lot of people who do not want blacks to have the same opportunities as whites. I brought up teachers and how studies show that a lot of us who would never consider ourselves racist might have lowered expectations for black students without realizing how damaging that can be. I brought up how popular culture doesn't provide nearly as many black heroes for children to look up to. I brought up a lot of things as we chatted for about forty-five minutes and ignored double negatives and verb tense, nothing really changing his mind and nothing really changing my mind. He's a nice guy, but I probably should have stuck to the grammar.

I'm far from an expert on any of this, but I'm happy that I'm at least aware. And that's what this movie is all about--making people aware. It does it in an almost confrontational way that I imagine would annoy its target audience, but I'm not sure it has a choice there. There are moments too visually powerful to ignore, a barrage of imagery that people have seen time and time again, and Baldwin's words that often dig deep into the viewer's conscience. A lot of the more powerful moments involve juxtaposition. The narration of a film about the beauty of America is heard over images of the Watts riots, for example. And it builds to three troubling climaxes--the murders of Evers, Malcolm X, and King, Jr., all three who were friends of Baldwins.

Samuel L. Jackson acts as Baldwin's voice. He's not the Jackson we're accustomed to hearing, not the one who says "motherfuckers" all the time, and I wonder if I even would have known it was him if I didn't know it was him going in.

Three powerful quotes sum up what should be learned from this film.

"The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story."
"Not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
"History is not the past. It is our present."

I was extraordinarily naive when Obama was sworn in a little over eight years ago as our first black president. It's a little embarrassing how naive I was, little old white me sitting in Indiana and thinking everything was going to suddenly be just fine now. This is a sobering reminder that we think we've come a whole lot farther than we actually have and that what we continue to refuse to face is likely what will keep America from ever being truly great. My fear is that this will only succeed in preaching to the choir, that bunch of liberal American history revisionist snowflakes who don't really care about the country.

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