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I Am Not Your Negro

This Oscar nominated documentary is framed by a letter James Baldwin was writing to an editor. He was pitching a novel that would tell us about his journey in the South, as well as living a long time in Paris. The unfinished manuscript for Remember This House, had been compiled as a memoir of his time with Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and his baritone, although more restrained than usual, isn’t the right voice for this (especially since we’ll see clips of Baldwin on talk shows or giving speeches, and it’s a totally different cadence). Someone should’ve also told Jackson how to pronounce “Third Reich,” but I digress.

This documentary lets us know a lot about the activism, politics, and thoughts of Baldwin, although it oddly left out his homosexuality (aside from a brief FBI memo speculating he might be gay). I have read a few things that said the Civil Rights movement was a bit homophobic, too.

One of the other disappointing things is that it’s not always chronological, and often plays like free association. You’ll also see random film clips that don’t always fit the narrative. More frustrating, you’ll see images of present day, like Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement which the filmmaker seems to be offering as a continuation of Baldwin’s message. Baldwin died in 1987 so this is conjecture; and there’s a difference between a justified police shooting of a criminal than the horrible atrocities that happened to African-Americans in the ‘60s. But those are the only flaws with this powerful film.

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Fatal Assistance) can be a bit disorganized with this, but it holds your interest and is rather informative and interesting.

He chooses some good songs; the original version of Baby Please Don’t Go by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Damn Right I Got the Blues by Buddy Guy.

We see clips from the Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Imitation of Life, Don’t Look Back, Stagecoach, and Raisin the Sun (with a terrific story involving the author).

There’s a lot of interesting footage of Baldwin at the 1965 debate at Cambridge. There’s also an informative interview he did on the Dick Cavett Show.

The documentary needed to show more of Baldwin’s struggles, but overall it was a great way to spend 90 minutes. The film is perfect for any young people that want to get educated on the Civil Rights movement.

This gets 3 stars out of 5.