I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who James Baldwin was before watching I Am Not Your Negro. If you’d asked me to name the most prominent black figures in the 1960s civil rights movement, I’d of course name Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. If pressed for a fourth, I’d probably have fumbled around and eventually come out with Harry Belafonte or Muhammad Ali. But based just on what I’ve seen in this hour-and-a-half documentary, it certainly appears that Baldwin deserves a lot more recognition.
As a teenager, James Baldwin knew that he had a lot of strikes against him. He was black. He was gay. He had come to the realization that the church was doing more to propagate oppression than to cure it. He didn’t feel safe in America and fled to France where he became a writer. But as civil rights activism became more front and center, he felt compelled to return.
From the clips presented, and particularly from an appearance on the Dick Cavett show, it seems like Baldwin may have been more eloquent, more logical, and more compelling than the more well-known leaders of the movement. He didn’t have the drawn-out, sing-songy, “black preacher” intonation used by many of his peers, which may not have been as effective at riling up supporters of the movement, and which opponents may have perceived as more gay and therefore easier to dismiss. But his words managed to evoke spontaneous applause from the 2017 audience, and certainly made me want to seek out more.
While the documentary’s primary focus is the 1960s, it covers a much broader swath of American history than that. It’s a takedown of the way that non-whites (especially African Americans and Native Americans) have been portrayed in the media, with a particular focus on early 20th-century films, although Sidney Poitier’s work from the 1950s and 1960s also gets some attention. It also draws parallels with more modern events like the Rodney King beatings, the Jerry Springer show, and the Ferguson, Missouri protests and riots, although these clips seem to have been integrated in a more clumsy and less organic way. But by far, the best parts of the film are those that use Baldwin’s words directly, whether from his writing or appearances. It may well be the case that documentary could’ve been even more powerful and effective in the hands of another director, but the quality of the source material still shines through and makes it a must-watch film. And probably also a must-seek-out-more-James-Baldwin film.