I Am Not Your Negro (film discussion)

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, along with Temple Sinai and a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, presents on February 7 at 7 P.M. another in our series on racial justice, a Zoom panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck and based on the writings of James Baldwin.

I Am Not your Negro, a powerful but imperfect documentary by director Raoul Peck, is derived from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember this House. This documentary received critical acclaim and a Best Documentary Oscar nomination before it opened nationwide.  Remember this House was intended to be a personal recollection of Baldwin’s friends – Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – all of whom were assassinated within five years of each other. Peck’s film relies almost exclusively on Baldwin’s writings that are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. This allows viewers to fully appreciate Baldwin’s eloquence and form a portrait of the artist through his own words, even if the film largely omits a crucial aspect of his work and life: his sexuality.  The film wholly rests on the power of Baldwin’s words, as the entirety of its construction is formed from his writings and his on-camera appearances. This is not a fault in the film, but its strength.

Peck chose not to complicate its audience’s view of Baldwin, especially the time in Baldwin’s life when his sexuality became a liability to his public role. It forgoes the chance to have Baldwin’s complex life reflect the complexity of our contemporary identities, including how race and sexuality inform our lives not as discrete experiences, but as mutually reinforcing ones. The film chronicles Baldwin’s life through the Civil Rights movement focusing on his personal relationships to the three murdered leaders.

Repeatedly, the documentary demonstrates Baldwin’s unique ability to expose the ways anti-Black sentiment constituted not only American social and political life, but also its cultural imagination. Baldwin was an avid moviegoer and wrote of films in a 1976 work, The Devil Finds Work. Peck brings them to this film to show how Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of Black menace and subservience as foils for White purity and innocence. Peck’s film also becomes a commentary on a U.S. movie industry that was bent on cementing racial stereotypes and on perpetuating a fiction for the Black minority of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness.

However much a documentary about American life in the 1960s, I Am Not Your Negro also uses Baldwin’s insights to illuminate our own contemporary reality. His juxtaposition highlights the uncanny similarity between the series of violent Black deaths of the Civil Rights era, and the series of remorseless Black deaths that mark our own calendar. As part of a 1961 radio panel that included fellow Black literary luminaries, James Baldwin remarked: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” On the other hand, he was not a defeatist as he wrote, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.  I’m forced to be an optimist.”

Above all else, I Am Not Your Negro is a searing indictment of America’s failure to rectify its shameful history of racial inequality. Please join us for this thought-provoking panel discussion of this exceptional documentary and the powerful voice of James Baldwin.

This Saratoga Jewish Community Arts presentation of the panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro is to be viewed ahead of time and can be found on outlets such as Amazon prime, Netflix, or others.  Panel discussion will be on February 7, at 7 P.M. Register to receive the Zoom link for the discussion at   sjca-sjcf@gmail.com

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