I Am Not Your Negro has been nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Documentary and Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) calls it “One of the best movies you are likely to see this year.” Aramide A Tinubu, a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy—a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment—writes about Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, showing how they “work in conversation with one another.” Here are excerpts:
Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” masterfully encompasses what it means to break through cycles of isolation and invisibility. In the film, Peck examines James Baldwin’s words and his legacy through the lens of some of the most traumatic moments of his life. Reeling for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, Baldwin set out to remember these towering men through what became an unfinished final manuscript entitled, “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s experiences and “I Am Not Your Negro” remind us once again that what black people and black entertainers are experiencing now are not new.
Peck uses Baldwin’s words (voiced eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson), to not only outline the writer’s personal journey as a Black man in 20th century America but to also examine the Black image as it has been dispersed throughout the media. At the beginning of cinema history, films like D.W. Griffith’s much acclaimed “The Birth Of A Nation” as well as Stepin Fetchit’s 1930’s performances as “the Laziest Man in the World” were seen as the sole and true depiction of African-American life.
Baldwin sought to shatter that image, while insisting on how harmful those depictions were not just to society as a whole, but particularly to black people in particular. Over the years, there has been a continued battle to hold on to our own narrative, to tell our truths and to strip away the stereotypes that have clung to us since we were first brought to this country. We are now in a period of reclamation.
These films work in conversation with one another. They force us to reassess our own views about blackness and black life while pushing back at the narratives that continually circle us. I do hope that one day soon we will truly break that cycle, because erasure is not just a bitter pill to swallow; it’s inherently damaging and demeaning. After all, representation matters more than anything else.