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I Am Not Your Negro (free)

  • Central Library 201 West Mifflin Street Madison, WI, 53703 United States (map)

It feels impossible to talk about I Am Not Your Negro without also critiquing 13th and O.J.: Made In America. All three films landed Academy Award nominations for best documentary feature (the later taking the trophy), and all three examined the intersectionality of race, class, identity and politics through a wide swath of American history. Though not the impassioned rallying cry of 13th or the meticulous autobiography of O.J., I Am Not Your Negro tackles many of the same problems through the lens of James Baldwin. While Baldwin's novels and essays made him a giant of American letters, his relationship with the political movements of his time is remembered with far less clarity. Director Raoul Peck tries to unpack this latter part of Baldwin's legacy in I Am Not Your Negro, drawing from Baldwin's unfinished manuscript about the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drawing from the very few pages of the manuscript Baldwin actually wrote before his death in 1987 and from television appearances, director Peck paints the picture of a black man who does not fit a mold. Baldwin, living in Paris during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, did not feel at home there or his native Harlem. He was not a member of the NAACP, the Black Panthers, or any religious institution, because his politics aligned with none. He did not see himself represented in the mass media’s portrayal of black men. The film jumps between Baldwin’s critiques of black activism and black media portrayals as well as the current and past conditions black Americans face, showing that little has changed. Though Samuel L. Jackson does a fantastic job narrating excerpts of Baldwin’s manuscript, the film shines brightest when Baldwin is on screen. Baldwin is effortlessly charming and expressive, wide eyed and smiled, confident and composed, his words just as vital as they were half a century ago. —Caleb Oakley