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I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary, based on the unpublished texts from James Baldwin’s estate, is moving in its poetry and staggering in its relevance.


I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO begins with a clip from the Dick Cavett Show in 1968. Cavett, the second most popular talk show host after Johnny Carson, wants to ask his guest James Baldwin about the progress that has been made. “Why aren’t negroes more optimistic?” he asks. Things are much better. There are negro mayors, athletes, politicians, and the ultimate accolade, they are in ads. Baldwin smirks, raises his eyebrows, and laughs as Cavett begins to stutter: “is it getting better and still hopeless at the same time?” Baldwin answers: “it’s not about what is happening with the “negro,” black people, it’s about what is happening in this country.” For Baldwin the problem was that racism was seen as a black problem and not one that has to do with white racists.

Director Raoul Peck cuts to a series of photographs of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri from August 2014 after unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white cop. If there was some kind of hope for the US at the end of the 60s, which was questionable after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Lives Matter movement shows that these hopes have not been fulfilled. What has changed is the fact that the ideology of white racists has found new allies in the right-wing populist movements in Europe and that the US protagonist now has the most powerful seat in the white house.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO uses an unpublished text from James Baldwin’s estate as the starting point. In 1979 Baldwin planned to tell the history of the US with the history of three of his murdered friends: civil rights activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin called it “Remember this House” and it remained incomplete with just 30 pages written. Samuel L. Jackson reads out Baldwin’s words off-camera and his intonations are hard to differentiate from Baldwin in his many interviews, speeches, and other film documents. Baldwin takes viewers on a journey to the beginnings of the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott and the first public appearances of Martin Luther King in 1955 to his assassination in 1968.

What’s most harrowing about the film is how relevant it still is. Baldwin talks about the photograph of 15 year old Dorothy Counts, one of the first African-American students who was admitted to a white high school in Charlotte, North Carolina and taunted and spit at on her way to school. It moved him to return to the US from his exile in Paris. He saw the indescribable pride, tension, and pain on her face as she was walking to the school and the faces behind her that jeered. He felt ashamed as one of them should have been there with her. Peck shows the photo and it is as shocking today as it was then. Not just because of Dorothy Count’s composure, but also because we are seeing the spitting, taunting children and parents in Germany again now. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary and won the Panorama audience award at the Berlinale. A fantastic film that requires an excellent command of the English language in order to really experience Baldwin’s language. Subtitles alone won’t cut it.


Translation: Elinor Lewy


Frankreich/USA/Schweiz/Belgien 2016, 93 min
Genre: Documentary
Director: Raoul Peck
Author: Raoul Peck, James Baldwin
DOP: Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross
Music: Turner Ross
Distributor: Edition Salzgeber
FSK: 12
Release: 30.03.2017


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