2016; directed by Raoul Peck; written by James Baldwin; 93 mins
The very act of my writing this review is a betrayal of everything this documentary has sent me away with. The world does not need another white voice yet here I am, filling up 750 words of space that should rather be given to someone from a culture that has none. Make no mistake: if you are a white person going to see this documentary, this has a lot to say to you.
As a left-leaning white male, I realised early on that it was useless to once again watch a film about racism with my empathetic hand over my disbelieving mouth in shock at the awful beatings and lynchings and hate-speech machine-gunned throughout the film by white people (and do not for one second think that this is just addressed to White America – it’s all of us). The film’s tone, like the author’s, is one of anger and tiredness and it’s address to me was; “Shut up, watch and listen, Simon!” It’s self-awareness time.
If you’re unsure where I’m going with this review, then I should state that I think it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the decade. It’s based around the unfinished manuscript written by African American writer and intellectual, James Baldwin, who, in 1979, decided to write a book about the Black experience in America. Starting from the violent deaths of three friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he utilised these events as a basis from which to dissect white perceptions and expectations of black people, whether left or right. Be it the outright, undisguised hatred of neo-Nazis, the police, the average right-wing protestor or the angelic left-winger whose back makes the loudest, most self-satisfied sound when he or she pats it. All of us are under Baldwin’s spotlight.
Now, this is not going to be a review discussing other white people’s mistakes. I have baggage. I have said, thought and done many many things that are racist and I probably still do though I try hard to keep my prejudices in check. I have a vivid memory of defending, to an entire classroom, the use of the phrase “Paki shop” to mean cornershop as being fine to say having never even met a Pakistani person, let alone ever even thought to ask whether they thought that phrase was racist or not. That’s just one infraction. So, I am saying that I am in a long, long period of learning and this film is one that, like the best criticism, is stern but constructive. Ideally, it will send us white people away with a lot to think about ourselves and our relationship with those around us.
For people of colour, it hopefully will send you away with some sense that certain imbalances are being righted. Director Raoul Peck‘s choice of film clips is pitch-perfect in the way that he takes both hugely outdated, racist films from the 20s and 30s to the progressive films of the 60s and 70s and picks them all apart to uncover how little has actually changed on a cultural level. He and editor Alexandra Strauss then really smartly juxtapose this with a documentary history of oppression and injustice, rolling on from slavery and mug shots of young, black men in the 19th century to cellphone footage of riots in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Throughout this maze (and maze-like it is, in that it is a beautifully constructed work with no easy way out), you have the twin voices of Samuel L. Jackson conspiratorially reading Baldwin’s words and that of Baldwin himself. Baldwin comes across as a man both fearsome in his intellect and yet someone you feel would engage you whoever you are! He is cool and collected when listening to anybody else, no matter their views and then his body language whilst he speaks is bursting with splenetic energy. He clearly was an extraordinary man and how great to see his work so successfully put out to a wider, global audience.
But let’s stop before we get into cheap platitudes. This is not an easy watch – you need your wits about you because it crams a lot into it’s 93 minutes. You have a documentary that easily sits alongside the best of Errol Morris and Alex Gibney, not just in terms of it’s seamless marriage of style and reportage but also it’s dense but clear storytelling and it’s scorched earth policy towards ‘The Truth’.
Make the time to go and see it. Be challenged and provoked. You may need it.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is showing at the Regent Theatre at 6.15p.m. on August 10th and 1.45p.m. on August 18th