Charlton writes this film "should be compulsory viewing for us all."
by Alan Charlton
Photo Caption: Nominated for best documentary at the Oscars, I Am Not Your Negro offers a remarkable view on the lives of several prominent activists, writes Alan Charlton. (facebook.com / jamesbaldwinmovie)
I Am Not Your Negro
In cinemas throughout the Lower Mainland
Amidst all the hoopla surrounding the 2017 Oscars, ranging from plaudits for Jimmy Kimmel’s clever opening monologue to the mess-up over the final award, many people may well see the awards as a desperate attempt by the Academy to be politically correct in an effort to obliterate the memory of last year’s “Oscars So-White” controversy.
This year saw several major awards, including acting awards, given to black actors and recognition in nominations or awards for films involving black actors and depicting the black experience.
Before everyone rushes to support Hollywood’s belated cultural sensitivity, there’s another film worth viewing: nominated in the best documentary category was Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro.
One would think any attempt to make a film based on James Baldwin’s 30 pages of notes for a history of America based on the lives of Medger Evans, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X – all three victims of assassination – must be doomed to failure. However, Peck has achieved the near-impossible and produced a film which is truly remarkable. He’s layered footage of Baldwin interviews and lectures with other documentary footage as well as cultural references in the form of scenes from television commercials and movies. The result is a film that is both challenging and profoundly moving.
At the centre of it all is, of course, Baldwin – one of the most articulate and profound thinkers of the last century. Were the film to consist of nothing more than the included excerpts it would be a powerful and arresting experience, but Peck’s masterly use of other components, including a voiceover commentary by Samuel Jackson to “complete” the biography, is masterly. Above all, it has a resonance that goes far beyond the borders of the United States.
Baldwin’s central thesis is essentially that as long as one continues to treat African Americans as “other” (my word, not his), then the minority will continue to live in justified rage. Indeed, Baldwin argues the reason African Americans have been ghettoized is that whites need this. It defines who they are – superior, privileged and not other.
In one of the most daring and provocative sequences, Baldwin defines Doris Day as the acme of white idealized perfection and John Wayne as the hero of movies in which he is shown slaughtering Indians. As long as these views of whites exist, then the black must be found to be outside of the societal ideal and, therefore, not seen to be part of that society.
And before we start pointing a finger at a post-Trump election as an indication of the inadequacies of America, perhaps we should look at the Canadian reality.
First Nations people, who were here long before the white population, have had a long and painful past inflicted on them by whites. Have we not marginalized our First Nations people? Have we not made them other? Substitute the black ghetto of America with the First Nations reserve and there is little difference.
It is true long-overdue attempts are being made in Canada to raise consciousness of the grim realities of life for First Nations people. But as one watches the documentary coverage of attempts to give black people equality in education, living conditions, and having a voice, we must surely recognize how much work needs to be done in Canada to give First Nations people true equality.
The lesson from I Am Not Your Negro is that it is not enough to be aware of and respect people of other cultures, not enough even to know their history and correct the abuses to which they may have been subjected. People of all cultures needs to stop ghettoizing themselves and to reach out to others, to see them truly as their neighbours, to embrace their commonality as humans, and to see them as simply fellow citizens of the same country.
Raoul Peck’s film is not only a superlative documentary that sears itself into the memory. It is also timely, and not just for the United States. I Am Not Your Negro should be compulsory viewing for us all.