Watching I Am Not Your Negro in Harlem | Spin

Written By Brian Josephs

UC - James Baldwin - The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro played at three New York theaters during its opening weekend. I attended the Sunday morning screening at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Harlem, the neighborhood where James Baldwin was born. (This was no grand writerly gesture; it was just the only theater in Manhattan that still had tickets on Fandango.) The documentary uses Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House—which sought to tell the story of America through the lives of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—to detail America’s deleterious relationship with African Americans, a struggle that’s very much ongoing.

Baldwin’s words are often considered prophetic, and a majority of the audience in my showing were well into adulthood, presumably well aware of what it feels like to be black in the United States. Going into it, I’d already braced myself for reactions to the film: As narrator Samuel L. Jackson–in one of his subtler and contemplative performances–recited Baldwin’s words, viewers in the theater responded with chorus of  “Mm-hmm.” They mostly came from women, and carried the reflexive, soulful tone of a mm-hmm that confirms a quote as truth. I Am Not Your Negro is the sort of film that is built to elicit plenty of those. “White is a metaphor for power,” Baldwin says via Jackson at one point. (“Mm-hmm.”) For the black moviegoers who filled that auditorium—the ones who’re constantly gaslit to believe that power structure doesn’t exist—the film serves as an affirmation, not a revelation. It’s also why it falls just short of being an essential piece of work.

The 30 pages of Remember This House that Baldwin managed to finish before his death was enough for a tidy one-and-a-half-hour arc. Because the film is also tied into the current struggle against white supremacy–I’ve been told it’s supposed to get me ready for the next four years, too–historical protest footage and images of destroyed black bodies are interspersed with recent trauma. Much like the generations of Jim Crow violence shown in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, the transitions are hauntingly seamless. Peck’s delicate filmmaking and Baldwin’s vivid prose interact in a way that neither feel like tableau for the other—rather, they’re constantly conversing.

Read more: Watching I Am Not Your Negro in Harlem | Spin

Related: In Theaters… I Am Not Your Negro

Get Your Tickets: www.iamnotyournegrofilm.com/

Read more: Watching I Am Not Your Negro in Harlem | Spin

Related: In Theaters… I Am Not Your Negro

Get Your Tickets: www.iamnotyournegrofilm.com/

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