I Am Not Your Negro Movie Review
This is why you don’t take books and literally translate them to the screen. I Am Not Your Negro, one of the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards, is a poetic, somber look at race in the United States through the eyes and words of acclaimed writer James Baldwin. It’s also a dull, meandering and trying experience.
Did Oscar voters, frightened by #OscarsSoWhite, opt to nominate I Am Not Your Negro (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) simply because it’s about the state of black people in America? No, I don’t think so (well, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, at least). Do I think that I Am Not Your Negro is another example of out-of-touch voters selecting something most people will find artsy, inaccessible and, quite frankly, a chore because at its core it is about something important? Yes.
Having just watched the excellent documentary series O.J.: Made in America—a fascinating, in-depth, entertaining exploration of race that is also nominated for Best Documentary Feature—I Am Not Your Negro feels ripped out of another era. That’s because it is—the movie is based on the unpublished, incomplete manuscript written by Baldwin back in the early 1980’s—presumably a beautifully and eloquently written memoir based on Baldwin’s experiences and observations as a black man and philosopher.
The point of director Raoul Peck’s film is to show that we still have a long way to go, I think (I’m not entirely sure, actually), that Baldwin’s words still ring true even when applied to current events. The world has moved on since—could Baldwin have truly foreseen a black president?—and it hasn’t—under President Obama, and now President Trump, racial tensions have simmered back to the surface. But right toward the end, Baldwin declares, “I can’t be a pessimist,” an outright lie based on everything he’s told us: he didn’t see a positive future, and yet the last several decades have shown measurable improvement—even if that improvement has been slow coming, slower than it should have been. Baldwin’s morose view on the world—not our world, but a world 40 years ago—isn’t all that accurate or relevant anymore.
Of the five documentaries nominated for an Oscar, three deal with race in America. And while O.J. and 13th work to pull the viewer in, to convince the viewer of their meaningfulness, I Am Not Your Negro pushes you away, not just in its pessimism but in its style. Baldwin’s memoir may have been a terrific read, but translating his words to screen so literally does not a good movie make.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.