Berlinale Blog – Not Then, Not Now: „I Am Not Your Negro“

     |    Wednesday, der 8. February 2017

By Andrew Horn

In many ways Raoul Peck, the director of “I Am Not Your Negro” (France/US 2017), screening in Panorama, had an easy job. As a writer, intellectual and civil rights activist, the late James Baldwin was such a great and erudite man, that just to put him up there and let him speak, is almost enough. And being that he was extremely well documented during his lifetime, there’s plenty of material to just throw up the clips and let it roll. And Peck is smart enough to do that, but also smart enough to know that he can still do more.

The connecting tissue of the movie is provided by Baldwin’s unpublished writings, read by Samuel L. Jackson and dealing with the story of race in modern America. But Baldwin’s personality coming through as strongly as it does, I found myself unaware of any distinction of voices between Jackson’s off screen “narration” and Baldwin’s dominant on-screen appearance.

Peck says of Baldwin, “He has a very precise way to describe something and with all the different layers, and in a very poetic way, and a very political way. And it just hits you on one side and once you think you understood the sentence, he would hit you with the second part of the sentence.”

Director Raoul Peck

In addition to Baldwin’s own words, as well as the obligatory archive footage – cultural as well as political, Peck also supports Baldwin with a number of quotes from Hollywood movies, such as “The Defiant Ones”, “Imitation of Life” and even Doris Day. Two instances really stuck out to me. In one, Baldwin tells a story about being a very young child, he was not yet aware of being outside the white culture. He said he loved going to cowboy movies and identifying with Gary Cooper fighting the Indians, “I only realized later that he was shooting at me.” The other was a clip from a 50s drama “No Way Out” where Sidney Poitier plays a young black doctor treating a white southern bigot. We see the bigot, played by Richard Widmark, in a fury slamming Poitier with his fist, knocking him to the ground. Widmark then collapses onto a chair sobbing, “everyone says we have to save the poor black babies! Who is there to save me?!” A very prescient scene in the light of Trump’s so-called “forgotten white America”. And in fact, though conveying the ideas of a man speaking from decades ago, the movie is both impressively and sadly contemporary.

From seeing the movie, the thing I admire most about Baldwin is his pragmatism. As much as he clearly identifies himself as an outsider, he still can identify as an American. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he says. “It is not a pretty story.” But he also adds, “I have to accept that my ancestors are both white and black, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other.” Wouldn’t it be great if we all believed him?

Addendum: after the press screening last week I looked the movie up on IMDB and was surprised to see that despite all the great reviews it’s gotten so far, it was voted only 4.9 stars out of 10. So I looked at the table showing the voting spread and saw that out of its then 530 votes, 250 of them gave it 1 star! Well, as the saying goes, “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.”