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Film review: Raoul Peck’s provocative take on civil rights in 'I Am Not Your Negro'

I Am Not Your Negro

For those expecting the creator of “I Am Not Your Negro,” the new racially incendiary documentary based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, to be culled from the ranks of a new crop of young black militants, guess again. The documentary is by the 63-year-old, Haitian-born, Raoul Peck, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now spends most of his time as head of a film school in France and living in the US. He’s also an unrepentant Marxist whose next film is scheduled for release as the “Young Marx.”

Peck’s comments at a recent Q&A made it clear that he’s been a fan of James Baldwin from time immemorial. He was able to get the rights to Baldwin’s entire oeuvre including the unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” which explores the history of race relations through the prism of the three fallen African-American icons, victims of assassins during the 1960s: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.

Peck has assembled an extraordinary treasure trove of archival footage which he has seamlessly edited, and conscripted the noted actor, Samuel L. Jackson, to read Baldwin’s words as the voice-over narration. Visually, Peck rivals Ken Burns as one of the master documentarians of today.There are many clips of Baldwin speaking (on the Dick Cavett show for example) as well as newsreel footage from the 50s and 60s, highlighting the many instances of racist behaviour on the part of white American society, particularly during the civil rights era. Baldwin’s wrath and Peck’s too not only indict the obvious southern racism of the times but those of northern whites too—Robert Kennedy is particularly excoriated for paying lip service to the aims of the civil rights movement. Peck also intersperses images of more contemporary victims of police brutality (such as the Rodney King beatings and Trayvon Martin).

Peck has a particular fondness for American films from the 50s, particularly musicals, which he views as saccharine and out of touch with the reality of violence against African-Americans throughout American history. In one instance, the “lily-white” image of Doris Day is contrasted with the next set of images—a group of turn of the century blacks, lynched by white (presumably southern) racists.

Much of the documentary features Baldwin’s incessant diatribes against the “white man.” Peck makes it clear that Baldwin’s focus is more on “class” than “race.” One might surmise that Peck is arguing that the entire social structure must be changed before equality is achieved between the races. But that seems to be a baseless canard as Malcolm X is shown (at least before his trip to Mecca) as a clear opponent of integration and brands Martin Luther King Jr., his so-called “comrade- in-arms” in the civil right struggle, as nothing more than an “Uncle Tom.” Underneath all the militant babble about the need for “respect” and “dignity”, it’s economic equality that is truly being demanded here.The problem with Peck’s documentary is that it’s all wrapped up in the figure of the chain-smoking provocateur, Baldwin. Unlike Peck, I am no fan of Baldwin, whose negative, “the glass is half empty” outlook on race relations, is more than grating.

The failure of Peck’s documentary revolves around his lack of balance—there is no attempt at self-criticism of the African-American community—one comes away from I Am Not Your Negro with an image of African-Americans as an exclusively noble group demonised by whites. One of course cannot ignore the extremely deleterious effect racism and discrimination had on African-Americans throughout our history but how can anyone move forward if one embraces a culture of victimology?

Instead of Baldwin, perhaps Nelson Mandela should have been Peck’s subject here. Unlike Baldwin, who spent years of exile in France, Mandela was imprisoned for years by a racist South African regime. Unlike the negative Baldwin, who held little hope for racial reconciliation, Mandela went out and immediately established truth and reconciliation committees and forgave the white community for the years of Apartheid in South Africa, working for racial reconciliation until the end of his days.

Peck is no doubt an extremely talented filmmaker whose choice of Baldwin as his documentary subject is unfortunate. One wonders if Baldwin was truly committed to economic equality or simply enjoyed getting a rise out of his audience–flipping the proverbial “middle finger” at the very people who appeared to welcome and revel in his demeaning insults.