Director: Raoul Peck
View on: Currently available only in theaters
*Note: This post is part of a series I am writing on the 2017 Oscar nominees for best documentary.
In I Am Not Your Negro, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the words of James Baldwin. When he died, Baldwin was just 30 pages into a manuscript he titled Remember This House. The story was to be about the lives and deaths of three of Baldwin’s friends and civil rights heroes, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Through their lives, Baldwin planned to write about the current reality of black Americans, how it is tied in our past and our society continues to perpetuate it.
The film weaves past and present issues together using Baldwin’s words. He explains throughout the movie that the history of oppression in America IS America. This country was built by people who were enslaved and oppressed. The American Dream is achieved only through the hard work and suffering of people who were forced to come here and forced to work. Baldwin also makes the case that the American Dream doesn’t actually exist – the film portrays modern day mass shootings and protests that turned violent after incidents of police brutality and the deaths of black people at the hands of the police.
Throughout the film, footage of Baldwin speaking at universities and on television is shown. He is such an eloquent speaker that my description would never do him justice, so I hope that we will all strive to watch clips of him and to read the words he wrote. In particular, I was very struck by his words on The Dick Cavett Show, where he talks about the institutional racism that exists, and how that may or may not be indicative of personal racism. Regardless, we all play in to institutional racism, and thus we are all responsible for it.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
I loved this film, and I hope it goes on a streaming service very soon so that more people have the chance to see it. The issue it most covers is that of systemic racism, which is not an easy thing to change. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. I think one of the first things that we as a society can do is to examine the impact that our institutions and structures on different people in America. For example, we know that poverty is common among communities of color. Why is this? Well, it stems from a lot of history – we as a society have historically oppressed people of color. History is part of the present, so it also stems from modern day reality. How can we combat poverty? Through equal education, affordable housing, access to affordable health care, the list goes on.
Let’s start with just one of these issues: Education. The number of organizations and government entities working to equalize our education system is vast. There is one I’m particularly fond of called Communities in Schools, which pairs up people from the community to students in our public schools as mentors and tutors. Communities in schools also brings in what essentially amounts to case management. We know that children can’t do well in school if they are constantly hungry, or they need glasses, or their is violence at home. Consider getting involved with them in your local community.