MIFF review: I Am Not Your Negro

A clarion call of crystal clear diction that warns just how easily rights won can be lost. Both powerful in its condemnation and, ultimately, hopeful.

With ten days to go until MIFF returns, tickets are selling fast. I’m going to use that time to recommend some of the highlights I’ve had the good luck to catch already before my in-festival reviews kick in.

First up is my pick of the docos I caught at the Sydney Film Festival in June, Raoul Peck’s searing I Am Not Your Negro.

Edged out at the Oscars by the controversially edited down doco OJ: Made In America, I Am Not Your Negro expands upon the contentious issue of race relations in America as seen through the brilliant mind of African American activist, author, poet, playwright and philosopher James Baldwin.

Taking as its basis a 30-page pitch for his unwritten book, Remember This House, it explores the explosive nature of racial politics in 60s America through the tragic prism of the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers. Baldwin’s burning wisdom is conveyed through archival footage of his soaring oratory style and with Samuel L Jackson narrating his notes.

Adding to the righteous fury, Peck layers Baldwin’s call to arms over contemporary images including the militarised police crackdown on the Ferguson riots and the slaughter of countless young black kids, including Trayvon Martin, underlining not only how far the country has to go, but also how much ground it has lost since Baldwin took the nation to task and many wise voices clamoured for change during the civil rights movement.

A fierce mind reminiscent of Gore Vidal’s school of take no prisoners, Baldwin is incredible to behold in full flow. Appearing on Dick Cavett’s talk show, eloquently trouncing those standing in his way, it’s telling that the supposedly liberal host clearly twitches, uncomfortably out of his depth. It’s also shocking to see how cavalierly Cavett uses the awfully dehumanising term captured in this doco’s title. At least some progress has been made there.

There’s modesty to Baldwin’s power too. He seems quite flabbergasted by a thunderous standing ovation awarded his speech at the Cambridge Union Society.

Baldwin cuts to the core with one particularly salient point linking the brutality of the slave trade to that of the slaughter of indigenous people, noting that African-American kids growing up watching cowboy shows on TV should be rooting for the ‘Indians’ with whom they have more in common than the white ‘heroes’.

While his anger is palpable, Baldwin was a man of solutions who identified unique strengths in all three of Remember This House’s subjects, close friends cut down criminally, even as the world clamoured to draw dividing lines between them. Neither was he willing to vilify all white Americans, noting that the kindness and generosity of a childhood teacher left him with hope. So to Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro lights up a beacon with its anthemic address and rousing soundtrack.

While I might personally have liked to see a little more of the tantalising revelation that his public homosexuality was inextricably linked to the ‘dangerousness’ that deemed him of interest to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, or of the writer’s time in Paris, it’s fair enough that the focus here is firmly on race. That was, after all, Baldwin’s intention for the unmade book.

This doco is more about his vision than it is about him, and it achieves that goal with excellence as it addresses pop culture, politics and protest. There is certainly room for another film throwing more light on the man himself.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★

Book tickets to see I Am Not Your Negro at MIFF here.

A version of this review first ran during SFF.