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Fade In: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

Raoul Peck’s Academy Award nominated documentary is a masterclass in American history and efficient storytelling.

The+documentary%2C+%22I+Am+Not+Your+Negro%2C%22+an+unfinished+book+by+American+writer+James+Baldwin%2C+follows+the+writer%27s+life+and+the+United+States+dealing+with+its+history+of+racism.+
The documentary,

The documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro," an unfinished book by American writer James Baldwin, follows the writer's life and the United States dealing with its history of racism.

Courtesy of Tiff

Courtesy of Tiff

The documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro," an unfinished book by American writer James Baldwin, follows the writer's life and the United States dealing with its history of racism.

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“I Am Not Your Negro” can be streamed through Kanopy and Amazon Prime. DVD copies can be found at multiple locations of the Long Beach Public Library.

 

Condensing over a century of history into 95 minutes sounds like a difficult task, but the Academy Award nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” does this and more with ease by narrowing its focus.

Director Raoul Peck never once claims that he is covering all of the African-American people’s history in the United States, let alone all of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement. Instead, the filmmaker uses the non-fiction writings of African-American author James Baldwin to follow in the author’s footsteps and attempt to document the nation’s history through the lives of three civil rights activists: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is uniquely structured because its foundation consists exclusively of words written or spoken by Baldwin. Peck uses the author’s observations of an America from a bygone era to argue that, in spite of some progress, the nation we live in today has much in common with its racist past.

Peck employs Baldwin’s words, frequently narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, to present this idea, but words alone do not make an interesting film. Cinema is a visual medium, and Peck capitalizes on this by utilizing footage and photographs of history and classical Hollywood cinema to support the ideas which he introduces through narrated text.

The director makes his argument by using the theory of montage which Marxist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein formulated in cinema’s youth. Images are precisely grouped together to produce a clear message. Through the use of montage, Peck argues that the American media, law enforcement and capitalism have all been instrumental in upholding a racist social hierarchy that continues to oppress many.

Because the film extensively uses images that serve as examples of police brutality and stereotypical media representations, watching it in full can be an uncomfortable experience. But the inclusion of these events is important to the movie’s argument, as they remind the viewer that these things really did happen and continue to occur.

The most brutal moment in “I Am Not Your Negro” comes when Jackson’s somber voice reads Baldwin’s notes containing his reaction to the news of Malcolm X’s murder. Peck pairs this narration with a photo of the civil rights leader’s corpse. The narrative unfolds in a manner that is best described as walking down a long line until its very end, with each bystander taking a swing at you with more strength than the last.

That’s a lot to fit into an hour-and-a-half movie, but the fact that the film never feels bloated attests to the director’s masterful use of montage. “I Am Not Your Negro” can get depressing, but it’s worth 90 minutes of your time because of what it has to teach about filmmaking, American history and Baldwin.

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