I Am Not Your Negro is the hip outsider’s pick to win Best Documentary Feature at this weekend’s Academy Awards, a highly topical film that includes four of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Based on an unfinished work by author James Baldwin, who got 30 pages into the project (titled Remember this House) before abandoning the project, IANYN tries to … I mean, I don’t really know what it tried to do. It’s so disorganized, with no narrative thread whatsoever, or even a sensible internal chronology, that less than an hour into it I was debating whether to stay for the remainder. If it weren’t for the mesmerizing footage of Baldwin himself speaking to various audiences and on television, I wouldn’t have anything good to say about it.
Ostensibly, IANYN is supposed to fulfill Baldwin’s vision to tell some story of the civil rights movement through the lives and deaths of three friends of his, all murdered for their work in attempting to secure basic freedoms for black Americans: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all well, well enough to know their families, to be in pictures with their children, to be at all of their funerals, but nothing in this film illuminates any of the three figures in a way we haven’t seen countless times before. The only person illuminated here is Baldwin, and that is the only part when the film works.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of Baldwin himself in IANYN, and my word was he an amazing speaker. He was charismatic and eloquent, in control of himself and the audience, with the author’s flair for the dramatic finish. He appears to be speaking extemporaneously in all of these appearances, but with the confidence of one who knows every word he’s about to speak from now until the end of the talk. And even in the longest sequences we see in the film, he remains on point, never digressing, even throwing in sarcastic asides and poetic flourishes like alliteration or repeated phrases. I would watch two hours of nothing but watching James Baldwin give talks about race.
Two of those bits of archival footage dominate this documentary. One is from a talk Baldwin gave at the University of Cambridge in 1965, a searing soliloquy on race that is by turns insightful and damning, one that ended with a standing ovation from the English audience (white, as far as I could see) that genuinely seemed to take Baldwin by surprise. The other is from an appearance he made on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, interspersed throughout IANYN, but when it opens the movie, we are treated to Cavett asking Baldwin a question where he repeatedly uses the word “Negro.” By the time I was born five years later, that word had become, unquestionably, a racial slur. To hear that word used so casually by a white man on a television show recent enough to be in the era of color (TV, that is) is beyond jarring. If the filmmakers wanted to get my attention, they succeeded. If that word isn’t followed by “Leagues,” I don’t want or expect to hear it. Baldwin certainly appears unhappy with the word’s use, but his response – that the situation for the black American at that time might be “hopeless” – subsumes any discussion about Cavett’s dated language.
The film as a whole, however, never finds its footing. It jumps around from civil rights hero to civil rights hero, moving forward and back in time, mixing in Baldwin’s words on his friends as appropriate but never enlightening us about those men. Had Baldwin lived to complete the project, he would likely have told us things about the three men that we did not know – and, in the case of Evers, give a forgotten hero some well-needed memorializing. (Evers was shot and killed by a white nationalist, Byron de la Beckwith, part of the burgeoning alt-right movement in 1963.)
This is not a biography of Baldwin, although I think such a project could be a tremendous contribution to our cultural canon. IANYN doesn’t mention any of his literary works; only mentions his sexual orientation once, as part of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI’s report on him; and never explains how he became someone invited to appear on talk shows to discuss major social and political issues of the day. But it also tells us nothing insightful about Baldwin’s friendships with the three other subjects. Simply giving us something in Baldwin’s words, read here by Samuel L. Jackson, doesn’t make for much of a watch, and those words don’t help tie together the film’s attempts to explore segregation in culture such as showing racist depictions in film or, in perhaps the most shocking sequence (to my eyes), the series of ads from the 1950s that used sambo-style images to sell products to white audiences.
Later, there’s a clip of a promotional film titled The Secret of Selling the Negro Market, which appears to be a U.S. Department of Commerce production explaining to companies that they can sell things to black Americans but might need new strategies to do so. IANYN neglects to mention that the film was financed and produced by Johnson Publishing, a multimedia company founded by the African-American couple John H. and Eunice Johnson, the same company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines – a rather salient point that puts the anachronistic Secret of Selling in a very different context.
I’ve seen the near-universal acclaim for this film, and I am comfortable on the other side of the street. It’s just not a good treatment of the subject. The footage of Baldwin speaking is wonderful, and there are some segments of our cultural mistreatment of blacks (in film, on TV, in advertisements) that were new to me and should never be forgotten or swept under the rug. However, IANYN lacks any cohesive thread, and its only point of view is that racism is bad. I already knew that and I assume you do too.