I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin
should make you
feel uncomfortable

words by: K. Austin Collins
staff writer, The Ringer


Raoul peck's oscar- nominated documentary "i Am not your negro' brilliantly channels the righteous antagonism of baldwin's vision of the american dream. 

"What I'm trying to say to this country - to us," James Baldwin once said, "is that we must this - we must realize this: That no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy and so irresponsible. And so dead."

The words, first spoken in New York at a Liberation Committee for Africa forum in June 1961, startle us today with the persistence of their truth. It's one thing to merely read them- it's another to hear them out of the mouth of an almost unrecognizably solemn Samuel L. Jackson. And it's yet another for Jackson's recitation to be animated by a montage of advertisements from Baldwin's lifetime, images featuring black and white men and women wearing rich catalog smiles, monied coifs, and clothing that beams as sickly bright as artificial sunlight. 

This is a vision of what America wants to be. Raoul Reck's "I Am Not Your Negro," which is up for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards, pits this vision against Baldwin's language, which is, as always, eager to glean a sense of what America truly is. 

Picture white picket fences and an beautiful joyful scene of middle-class prosperity set to this. Ether: No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth, and a wife, and a house with a fence, and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives - and then to marry and have the Plymouth and the house, and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it and do not know that when we talk about democracy, this is what we mean. 

The lines speak, righteously, for themselves. But Peck provides a stunning assist, welding them to lifestyle advertisements in order to flip those aspirational fantasies on their heads. 

"i am not your negro is one of four films by black filmmakers up for best documentary at the Oscars- an unprecedented number in what has proven to be a record year overall from black creators on the awards circuit. 

Its competition includes Ava DuVernay's 13th; Roger Ross Williams's Life, Animated; the Italian political documentary Fire at Sea; and the front-runner, Ezra Edelman's eight hour O.J. Made In America - for the most part, equally worthwhile efforts. I suspect Peck's film will not win. But the 90 minutes' worth of incisively designed sequences in the documentary convince me that it should.