James Baldwin in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit @Dan Budnik all rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A powerful exploration of the history and effect of racism in the United States, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO unapologetically captures the oppression of black humanity. It is an Oscar-nominated, 2016 documentary film directed by Raoul Peck that is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.

On Oct. 29th, as a part of the F.I.L.M. series, Hamilton welcomed Raoul Peck to campus for a screening and discussion of his film. Art History Professor Scott MacDonald introduced Raoul Peck who explained how he decided to tell the story of James Baldwin. Peck shared that in creating this documentary, he aimed, not to show his interpretation of Baldwin’s words, but to give Baldwin a space to share his words himself.

As he told the Los Angeles Times, “I made sure every single word was pure Baldwin.  It was not about how creative I am. It was about how do I make sure it hits the people frontally, without any filter.”

Though Peck’s film is mostly sustained by simple voice-over narration (by Samuel L. Jackson) of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, the documentary feels complete and tells a story, interweaving clips of public appearances of Baldwin, including his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show with various clips from relevant movies and footage of police brutality. It intersects the lives and assassinations of Baldwin’s friends and civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, who were killed within five years of one another. It is unafraid in confronting white America head-on; it demands its audience to reflect on how they approach racism.

The documentary was followed by a question-answer session with Peck during which he answered questions about how he contextualized historic events to modern day, how he chose to mention but not focus on Baldwin’s sexuality, and discussed how if President Donald Trump were black, he would be perceived drastically differently by Americans. Peck explained that through his documentary, he wanted to encourage people to question and criticize the construction of race, rather than live in “media-fueled ignorance.”

Through his writing captured by Peck in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, Baldwin commented on the deeply rooted racism in white America; in an eerie act of foreshadowing, this writer who has been dead for over 30 years, managed to be more timely and relevant than ever for today’s political and social culture in the United States.

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