Chicago Metropolitan Chapter

Justice by Action

I Am Not Your Negro Movie Review

*** (3 stars)

A very powerful, moving film, but it’s so much more than that.  This film is a documentary of writer James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.”  Baldwin died before the manuscript was completed.  After his death, the publishing house that had paid Baldwin a $200,000.00 advance on the project sued his estate to recover the payment, but they eventually dropped their suit.

This documentary film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, who does an excellent job.  The fact that the words were written so long ago by a man who was quite controversial himself as the most acclaimed writer of the black experience in America at that time should not be lost upon any viewer who seeks to view this compelling story of the struggle by African Americans to gain full acceptance in America during the height of the civil rights movement here.

James Baldwin grew up poor in Harlem, New York. His father abandoned the family while Baldwin was very young, and Baldwin’s mother remarried a preacher, whom Baldwin came to refer to as his father.  Baldwin described his childhood with his father a harsh and abusive; Baldwin himself had left his father’s church and became a minister of another church, oftentimes drawing larger crowds to hear his sermons than his father did.  Eventually, Baldwin abandoned religion, stating his belief that religion enslaved black people by filling them with false hopes of a fair and just life in the afterlife.  But Baldwin also felt that religion had its use because, in his words, it “inspired some blacks to defy oppression.” Baldwin left home at 17, moving to Greenwich Village, a mecca for artists at that time.  Baldwin was at one time roommates with the actor Marlon Brando. By the age of 24, Baldwin had abandoned America to live in Paris, France, where he resided for many years. Although Baldwin would occasionally return to America, he never gave up his residence in France.

Baldwin has stated that he was aware that he was gay in his teens; by the age of 26, he had fallen in love with a 17 year old Swiss (male) painter, Lucien Happersberger.  3 years later, Happersberger married black actress Diana Sands.  Baldwin was devastated over the marriage, but he and Happersberger had an on-off relationship which last many years after the marriage ended in divorce.

Baldwin’s second novel, “Giovanni’s Room” was considered quite controversial because of what critics at that time saw as explicit homoerotic content.  While this novel depicted characters that were Caucasian, Baldwin later explained the novel as a coming out book about his own sexuality, stating that (to paraphrase him here), “no one found me out, I chose to tell you.”  While Baldwin may have found the book personally liberating, it was indeed considered avant-garde, because the topic of homosexuality (let alone gay sex) simply wasn’t discussed in movies or in print at the time the book was published (the original publisher declined to publish the book).  Baldwin had assessed that the civil rights movement did not deal with the rights of homosexuals, which Baldwin saw as intertwined. 

Besides Baldwin, another gay civil rights activist of that time was Bayard Rustin.  While both men strongly supported Martin Luther King, King would eventually distance himself from both of these civil rights supporters over their sexual orientation.

If anyone reading this review is too young to recall the civil rights movement, I urge you to see it; better yet, bring other young people with you, especially your children.

Baldwin took many brave leaps in appearing on white talk shows (usually as the only black guest invited) to explain what the civil rights movement meant not only to him, but to black people all across America in a way that managed to gain and hold the attention of white Americans, which has never been an easy task.

This is an excellent documentary on the part of director Raoul Peck (with many original film clips of Baldwin and talk show host Dick Cavett, who boldly provided Baldwin the platform to explain the civil rights movement to Americans who would have otherwise widely ignored it if they could have.  There are also clips of Baldwin debating the civil rights movement in some of the most prestigious Ivy-League universities in America (like Yale), in which Baldwin received standing ovations from almost all white student bodies.  Without a doubt, while people such as Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X  (Baldwin was friends with all of them, and marched with them on several occasions before each was assassinated) were on the forefront of the battle for civil rights, James Baldwin was just as effective (maybe even a little more so) with his pen and his presence on tv talk shows discussing it in terms that made people who were clueless about the movement come to terms with the struggle for basic dignity not afforded Blacks across all of America.

It is important particularly during Black History Month that this movie be viewed.  Few films documenting the civil rights movement in this country in the late 50’s and 60s capture the time and the men and women who gave so much to move all of America forward.

Directed by Raoul Peck

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson

With appearances by James Baldwin and Dick Cavett

95 minutes.  Rated PG-13 (some depictions of actual violence, lynchings, and one brief scene of nudity).