By Maleeha Coleburn
Often the Civil Rights Movement is portrayed as a constant wave of action. We are shown images of black Americans marching, protesting and in opposition of white police officers. Rarely do we learn about the day-to-day hardships of black Americans. Rarely do we hear about the struggle of the leaders. Rarely do we truly understand the pain the black community in the U.S. suffers with the assassinations of their leaders.
The face of the Civil Rights Movement is typically Martin Luther King Jr. He is the one who is written about in the textbooks, as well as constantly praised and quoted. Seldom are Malcolm X, Medgar Evers or James Baldwin used to illustrate the movement. That is why this documentary is important. It shows the impact all four men had on the Civil Rights movement.
“I Am Not Your Negro” comes from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” in addition to his published works and various television appearances. The documentary is directed by Raoul Peck.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film examines the history of racism prevalent in the U.S. Baldwin reminiscences on the lives and deaths of the Civil Rights Movement leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It is filled with videos of James Baldwin’s eloquent speeches and pictures of Martin Luther King Jr’s hope, Malcolm X’s pride and Medgar Evers’ sacrifice.
Stills of hardened black faces are shown in contrast to artistic clips of carefree white women. Clips of the brutality faced by the black community and their resilience and unwavering commitment are shown against the racists screams of the white community.
The imagery, both videos and pictures, is stunning. Some of the shots are hyper-realistic and absolutely breathtaking. But it is the grainy uncolored images that are truly moving, not in their beauty, but in the piece of history they contain and in the sobering reminder it gives us not only about our history, but our today.
“I Am Not Your Negro” uses Baldwin’s insights about life in the 1960s to illuminate our own modern reality. The documentary’s most gripping scenes intercut ‘60s footage of police violence directed against black people and shots of similar brutality against black people performed today.
The similarity between the series of black deaths that occurred in Baldwin’s life during the civil-rights era and the series of deaths—of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many others—that mark our own calendar is highlighted.
The distance between the 1960s and today collapsed during this documentary. Baldwin, who died in 1987, could not have known about Black Lives Matter or the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. He could not have guessed the rise in white nationalism that stains our today or the riots that arose in Ferguson or Baltimore. It speaks to the present with greater clarity and force than most racial history movies. Viewers are forced to confront uncomfortable truths and understand the sharp lessons drawn from the darkest shadows of our history.
“I Am Not Your Negro” shows us how far we have come since the ‘60s. But it also shows us how far we still must go.
“I can’t be a pessimist,” James Arthur Baldwin said, “because I’m alive. I’m forced to be an optimist.”
Maleeha Coleburn is a freshman journalism and government and politics double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.