I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (2016) is a documentary based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, a Black novelist and social critic. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film depicts Baldwin’s observations about race in America from the 50s on and traces his relationship with the American civil rights movement, notably Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King.
The documentary lacks historical depth and is more deeply personal, going into Baldwin’s head and what he thought. We’re given an ample look at his views going back to the 60s, including his infamous debate with William F. Buckley that brought the mostly White audience to a standing ovation. Baldwin’s observations are smart, cutting, and powerful.
As examples, he derides Bobby Kennedy’s observation that Blacks had made significant progress in America, and that in 40 years, might even make President. While White liberals saw this as uplifting statement, Baldwin naturally found it insulting, wondering if he should be thankful that in 40 years, if the Blacks were good, they might be elected to the highest office. In his views, Blacks and Whites needed each other, were both Americans with just as much right to participate in society, but that Blacks found themselves disenfranchised as if living in somebody else’s house. “Negroes built this country,” he says. Popular culture depicted Blacks as stereotypes, which he despised, feeling it denied his humanity, just the way social questions about “how to help the Negro” did and blind racist hatred did. Blacks needed a fair shake and to be regarded fairly and equally, as human beings, nothing more, but certainly nothing less.
These and many other issues are explored in the documentary, which I found more a social critique and personal intellectual narrative than historical film. While it lacks punch, its power is subtle, gnawing at you by making you think about race relations a new way, especially if you’re White.