I Am Not Your Negro

by Toby Woollaston

ianyn“The future of the negro in this country, is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country”—this provocative statement by black activist James Baldwin may on the surface sound reductive but his stance is unflinching and he unapologetically uses black lives as the benchmark of America’s success as a nation … and in Baldwin’s words “it is not a pretty story.”

In 1979 Baldwin penned the beginnings of a manuscript that was to be his next project, called “Remember this House”. Director Raoul Peck has taken these pages and created a documentary that is a stimulating rendition of Baldwin’s seminal work.

I Am Not Your Negro is an important film, not just as a document of America’s checkered racial history but also as a warning to the world about the fragility of cultural difference. It shrewdly illustrates the historical treatment of America’s black community in order to access deeper fundamental problems within America, and indeed the Western civilisation. Just as Al Gore has used climate change to illustrate our problems with materialism, similarly Baldwin through the lens of Peck uses a racist America to illustrate our fundamental inability to embrace cultural difference and commonality. Baldwin posits “It’s not a question of what happens to the negro here, to the black man here … but the real question is what’s going to happen with this country.”

Peck’s aesthetic scope tells Baldwin’s story with a chaptered structure and an evocative use of imagery.  He seamlessly traverses decades of footage, splicing in recent events to remind you that this is still a current problem.

The film unfortunately stops short of a comprehensive solution, but argues that America’s problems that created “the nigger” still exist today and is a “formula for a nation or kingdom decline”.  With a finger firmly pointed at Western civilisation (although it is difficult to think of any civilisation, past or present, where cultural difference has been harmoniously embraced) the film at its core seems to wrestle with the age old conundrum of humanity’s inability to grasp power.  Whatever the case I Am Not Your Negro is an intoxicating and provocative film that certainly gets you thinking.

Read my reviews on the NZ Herald’s website here.