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I Am Not Your Negro - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
I Am Not Your Negro
Directing: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

IMDb.com announced two days ago that it will be shutting down its message boards, in part, according to The Hollywood Reporter, because "the viability of IMDb's user voting system has been called into question, as the ratings of movies by minority filmmakers receive a disproportionate amount of negative ratings." I Am Not Your Negro is pointed out as a recent example of the issue.

If you take a closer look at this film in particular, the issue bears out all over. It's actually less obvious on IMDb, where its user ratings average 5 out of 10 but only two of the user reviews currently posted on the film's page have fewer than 7 stars, than on, say, MetaCritic, where the critical "Metascore" is an astonishing
96 out of 100, yet the average user score is currently 3.7. If you want to retain any faith in humanity, I recommend avoiding a look at any of the transparently racist trolling going on among the low-score reviewers.

Or is ignoring such people a part of the problem? One small issue I had with the film personally was an inability to distill the exact point of it. If this movie is "on message," then what is the message? Or could it be argued that the film's only point was to present the point of view of the late black gay author James Baldwin -- his gayness barely acknowledged here, by the way, or do I only care about that because I'm gay? There is only so much director Raoul Peck can pack into one movie, after all, and here he does narrow the focus down to race in America.

There honestly couldn't be a better time for it, although a title like I Am Not Your Negro is hardly inviting to audiences that might break the film away from preaching to the choir. Then again, how many white liberals come to this movie just to pat themselves on the back for having done so? Such audiences are just as much in need of a wake-up call as anyone.

And, indeed, as I watched archival footage of Baldwin making both memorably profound and profoundly depressing observations of American culture and history, I kept wondering which thing he said might prove to be the most memorable. How could I distill this movie down to its most basic principle? And then, it came: "Nothing can be changed until it is faced." That is why people should see this movie. Does that make viewing this movie feel like homework? Maybe it does. Teachers should make this part of their curriculum in high schools across the country. They should be sure they are facing that which needs to be changed first, though.

That then begs the question, of course: What is to be faced, then? So much! Seriously. A lot.

If Raoul Peck has any message beyond what Baldwin had to say in the 1960s and 70s, it is that the state of race relations in America is just as willfully ignored today as it was then. I have family members -- as do most white people, I assume -- who ask questions like, "I don't understand why they can use the N word but we can't." This lack of understanding is explained explicitly by Baldwin himself: segregation, of all kinds -- social, structural, institutional -- prevents the kind of understanding that would answer that question. White people can't acknowledge the fears and the very real dangers that people of color live with because not only do they not live their lives, they don't even exist close enough to see them. That makes it far easier to dismiss their complaints -- or even mere observations -- as nonexistent.

This is the basic gist of the tone of I Am Not Your Negro, which basically states, "This is how things are, and if you can't see it, there will be no progress." An old talk show clip shows Baldwin as a guest, having just articulated himself in a pointedly succinct way, then facing off with a white college professor of philosophy -- seemingly the perfect sort of person for such discussions -- who quite clearly misses the point.

Using such archival footage, and a lot of his own written words as read aloud by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro is based on Baldwin's unfinished manuscript for a book entitled Remember This House -- a mere thirty pages of notes, according to the opening titles. It delves fairly deeply into Baldwin's thoughts on key civil rights leaders of his day, all of them assassinated: Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He ruminates on their differing approaches to activism, and notes how in the end, Malcom X and Martin Luther King had philosophies more similar than different.

As such, I Am Not Your Negro is dense with meaning, and unless you fancy yourself a particularly cerebral person, can at times be difficult to penetrate. James Baldwin was clearly an intellectual of high intelligence, and that alone can be intimidating. It clearly is to those people posting one-star reviews on message boards. That said, as a film, it is well put together, with wonderfully stark black and white transitional graphics. As long as you're open to the challenge -- and this movie challenges the viewer with an unflinching look at America's racist past as well as present, if not its future as well -- the narrative can be downright riveting. It can also be supremely depressing, depending on your point of view.

For much of the film, genuine hope seems in short supply. But there are arguments to be made for the necessity there as well, given the gulf in experience between people of color and the white majority. To claim that the point of view here is to advocate oppressing white people, as some people clearly feel, is objectively preposterous. And to acknowledge that is perhaps where the hope lies -- hence the assertion that nothing can be changed unless it is faced. This is a film that holds a mirror up to America, which few Americans truly look into.

James Baldwin is not . . . well, you get the idea.

Overall: B+
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