Nicole M. Campbell is a KFI editrix. She chopped 10 inches off her hair and is coping rather well. This week, the Girl on Film gives us her review of “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is up for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars.
The works of James Baldwin were never introduced in my American literature class in college (and I was an English major) and that's a shame.
But coming late to the game is better than not going at all.
"I Am Not Your Negro" explores the black experience in America through Baldwin's reflections on three of his murdered friends - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and NAACP activist Medgar Evers. It is only Baldwin's words we hear in the movie, whether they're being delivered by the author in archival clips or voiced by an excellent Samuel L. Jackson. (Who did such a good, non-Samuel-L.-Jackson-job I didn't even recognize his voice.)
Baldwin's orator skills are superb. His speaking voice, whether he's debating William F. Buckley at Cambridge University or talking on the Dick Cavett Show, is affected, to be sure. He's got kind of a Boston Brahmin thing going on; think Thurston Howell III. But Baldwin can never get off his island. He's isolated, along with most other black people in an America that treats them as second-class citizens.
Baldwin' writings on the subject are no less eloquent than his spoken word. These thoughts are the ones voiced by Jackson. The musings come from 30 pages of a draft of "Remember This House," a book Baldwin had started to write on King, Evers and Malcolm X. Letters Baldwin wrote to his literary agent finish out the framework of the documentary.
The movie is punctuated by news footage which give context to what black people in our country have had to face, and still do. The fire hoses of the Civil Rights movement give way to the images of black boys and men killed by cops. But that history is also elevated by clips showing how race has been portrayed in the movies. Not just the mammies and butlers of yore, but the areas between black and white, literally, such as the young biracial girl "passing" as white in "Imitation of Life."
Hearing Baldwin talk in the '60s about a possible future black president, juxtaposed with pictures of Barack Obama walking the parade route during his first inauguration, is stirring. Hearing Baldwin's words on an America that doesn't seem to have progressed much when it comes to race is sad.
"I Am Not Your Negro" is essential viewing for these times.