Review: Baldwin’s ‘Negro’ an opportunity to reflect on America

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By Kamal Abu-Shamsieh

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a film that documents significant events in the history of African Americans through the works of the social critic and writer James Baldwin. In his unfinished book, “Remember This House,” Mr. Baldwin offered a personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three unique African American leaders and his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film brings the author’s manuscript about them to life.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, “I Am Not Your Negro” will be screened on Friday, March 10 at the Tower Theatre, presented by Fresno Filmworks.

This documentary is timely in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, the rise of ultra-nationalists, the assault on immigration and amplification of xenophobia. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck portrays the lives of the three leaders and offers a montage of events that took place during the Civil Rights era, connecting them with contemporary events targeting African Americans such as the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

The film is an opportunity for deeper reflection. For example, what will Millennials and Generation X learn from the words of Martin Luther King, who called to “save our national honor, stop the bombing, stop the wall” when he took a stand against the war in Vietnam? Is there any resemblance between the war in the late ’60s and the drones that drop indiscriminate bombs and lead to mounting civilian casualties worldwide? How about the tale of two cities that remain across America, a continuation of segregation, where the lines between those who have and those who don’t are clear? The filmmaker accurately describes that America is probably “most segregated on Sundays” despite being labeled as a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl.”

Mr. Baldwin eloquently tells the story of the Negro as a story of America where the two are indivisible. He rightly claims that “history is not the past but the present as people carry within them their own history.” The documentary provides images of lynching in the past and the rise of white power where whiteness symbolizes power, not race.

The use of words actually written by Mr. Baldwin along with the archival footage of lynching captures racial tensions then and now. Sometimes we hear the author’s words in his own voice; sometimes we hear his words through the narration of actor Samuel L. Jackson. The documentary is a testimony of nonviolence despite the recurrence of racial slurs and prevalence of police brutality and racism.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is living testimony of the journey into black history that connects the past time of the Civil Rights movement and the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter empowerment movement. The film offers an opportunity to question the portrayal of African Americans and racism in Hollywood, in politics and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of these three leaders, Mr. Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.

*****

Kamal Abu-Shamsieh serves on the Fresno Filmworks board of directors. He can be reached at shamsieh@gmail.com.

INFO

Movie screening: “I Am Not Your Negro,” presented by Fresno Filmworks

Directed by Raoul Peck and written by James Baldwin

Friday, March 10, 2017

5:30 and 8:30 p.m.

95 minutes, Rated PG-13

Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave.

Post-screening discussion after first show only, featuring panelists Thomas-Whit Ellis, Melissa Harris, and Dr. Francine Oputa

$10 general admission; $8 students & seniors

Info and tickets: FresnoFilmworks.org