I Am Not Your Negro

Posted on February 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong language, racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Archival footage of social unrest, civil rights era and contemporary violence
Diversity Issues: The theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: May 1, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B06WLH94HD

Copyright 2016 Magnolia Pictures
Copyright 2016 Magnolia Pictures
Director Raoul Peck has made a powerful and vitally timely film about James Baldwin — and about today. By juxtaposing Baldwin’s words with images from Ferguson and other contemporary conflicts over race and poverty, he underscores the impact and importance of Baldwin’s commentary.

It is shocking how little has changed. Peck makes that point subtly by going behind the grainy black-and-white images that are so familiar to us from the Civil Rights Era, so stylized that they seem almost as distant as daguerreotypes. Intensive research over a ten-year period led to the discovery of previously unseen archival footage, some in color, matched here with new contemporary material, some shown in black and white to make even more seamless the connection between past and present.

Still, there are some stunning reminders of what has changed, none more shocking than the sight of not one but two public intellectuals as guests on a night-time network television talk show. Yes, before the days when talk shows were made up of silly games and sillier reality show “stars” and Hollywood performers pushing their latest projects, people used to come on television and talk about ideas. We see James Baldwin and a Yale professor on the Dick Cavett show. Yes, the professor condescendingly whitesplains race relations, clearly thinking he is complimenting Baldwin by pointing out all they have in common.

It is good to be reminded that at one time there were public intellectuals who engaged with policy and culture so bracingly. Peck reminds us that Baldwin was a social critic who was fascinated with movies and the message they reflected and conveyed about our society. Through his eyes, we see Doris Day as an emblem of whiteness, John Wayne “heroically” killing Indians, movies ignoring race (and the stories of anyone who was not white) and movies fumbling in their attempt to portray race, like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with its saintly slaves and “Imitation of Life” with the light-skinned girl who wanted to deny her heritage, and her mother.

The movie credits Baldwin himself as its author, and rightly so. Baldwin is a mesmerizing screen presence with his deep-set eyes and lacerating wit. But it is his words that make this film come alive, knowing, provocative, patient, but insistent.

Parents should know that this film includes some violent and confrontational images from the Civil Rights Era and contemporary racial abuses and protests, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What do the contemporary images tell us about Baldwin’s ideas? What would he say about today’s controversies? Would he say we have made progress?

If you like this, try: “Eyes on the Prize” and the books by James Baldwin

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