Reflecting on I’m Not Your Negro

‘I’m Not Your Negro’ is a Oscar nominated documentary narrated by Samuel L Jackson as the voice of Writer James Baldwin, and directed by Raoul Peck. The narration is taken from his unfinished novel ‘Remember This House’ and tells the story of race in modern America.

James Baldwin was one of the most well known spokesmen during The American Civil Rights Movement. He was a writer of considerable renown, drawing readers of every nationality and race, even though his writing usually consisted of him conveying his disappointment in America and its white majority. By the time he died in 1987 he was seen to many as one of the most respected voices in modern American Letters, due to the passion he expressed when covering racial matters. In his writing Baldwin explores both sides of the spectrum: the oppressor and the oppressed, suggesting everyone suffers in a racist society.  In The Block American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Walter Meserve noted: “People are important to Baldwin, and their problems, generally embedded in their agonising souls, stimulate him to write. … A humanitarian, sensitive to the needs and struggles of man, he writes of inner turmoil, spiritual disruption, the consequence upon people of the burdens of the world, both White and Black.”

‘I’m Not Your Negro’ is one of those documentaries which you have to let sit before you can fully conjure up any form of official opinion of it. I mean, it’s a lot to take in. My initial response after the screening, hosted by Skin Deep magazine, was pretty much just sadness. We all know how brutal history was for African Americans but seeing it like that again and actually looking at videos and images historically acts as a very harsh reminder. The hate and prejudice shown by the white population was simply just vile; still to this day I question just where their moral compass was or if they even had one in the first place. The things they would do and say with smiles on their faces as if there was nothing wrong with what they were doing has always astonished me. The beatings dished out by the police, the general harassment by white civilians, the condescending and degrading advertisements and media, it was all just a lot to see, I couldn’t begin to imagine just how hard life must have been.

The documentary is narrated using Baldwins unfinished novel, so everything we hear is from the hand of Baldwin himself, which I think makes the documentary so much more powerful. The eloquence of his writing allows him to paint a vivid picture in terms of the emotions he was feeling as he watched his people suffer, as he watched great leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr all get murdered consecutively within 5 years. However, I think his pain is made most evident when he’s talking about his initial reaction to the pictures of 15 year old Dorothy Counts as she walked to school whilst being followed and harassed by a mob of white people. The strength and pride in her face is what spurred him on to do what needs to be done, or rather say what needed to be said.

What is very chilling about the documentary for me was the editing. In scenes when they were showing police brutality during Baldwin’s era, they mixed in scenes from present day. This impacted me the most because it showed that contrary to what we like to think, society hasn’t really changed much. I got the idea that society was more bold with their racism back then, but now they have to be more sly with it and hide it; however the important thing to remember is that the racism is still there, maybe just a bit more technical and hidden behind closed doors.

The documentary really makes you think about life: the past, present and future. It makes you question what has changed and what needs to be changed. I really enjoyed the documentary and I think it opens up the floor to loads of conversations, affecting different people differently. It has definitely inspired me to want to do some more research on James Baldwin, especially as a young black writer myself.

Words by Michael Ukaegbu.