Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro draws inspiration from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, which was intended to be a recollection of the works of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The reflections on these men and legacies come in the form of passages from books and essays, including The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin’s meditation on race and the myth of white innocence. However, Baldwin only managed to write 30 pages of Remember This House before his death in 1987. James Baldwin is an essayist, novelist, playwright, poet, and activist whose work largely highlights racial and social issues focused on the black experience in America. Although Baldwin is considerably renowned, his work is not taught in classrooms or in curriculums as his white contemporaries are. 

For those who think that the riots occurring this week are new or that racism is the product of a specific historical moment, I Am Not Your Negro disproves these false assumptions. Some of the movie’s most gripping scenes include intercutting footage of police violence directed against black people in the 1960s with police violence today; Peck overlays the infamous video of Rodney King being beat by white LAPD officers. Baldwin’s observations are unfortunately timeless, as he integrates the trivialization of and distortion of structural explanations behind violence, weaved by trashy daytime talk shows and the mainstream press. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro is not simply a documentary about racism. It instead reveals the complex patterns in our history which continuously suppress black humanity and perpetuate the lengths that white people will go to rid themselves of their complicity in systematic oppression.

In addition to echoing Baldwin’s messages, I Am Not Your Negro places Baldwin’s work in the context of the world around him, as the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. occur within 5 years from each other. Their assassinations did not spur the reaction from white America that it should have. The work these men dedicated their lives to also rests on the work and reflection of white Americans to fulfill. As Baldwin famously said,“You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

Peck’s ultimate thesis is hopeful. Despite the ugliness of the past, which lay bare the foundation of a country plagued with the oppression of others, and regardless of how difficult it is to march on, change is still possible. However, this change can only come through understanding our country as Baldwin does, not simply through echoing empty words and short-term promises.

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