Sydney Film Festival Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

"Though this civil rights story may not be new, it’s relevant, as justice hasn’t been settled."

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This review is part of a wrap from Sydney Film Festival 2017. Read more here.

I Am Not Your Negro is one of many films in the Sydney Film Festival program that deals with race and class. This one, however, has been called a “spiritual documentary”, which I think is exactly the right term.

In the 1960s, canonical writer James Baldwin was struck with a total emotional paralysis by the murders of his friends and civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. Though he set out to craft a memoir-ish project (Remember This House) around these accumulated traumas, it remained unfinished. Raoul Peck’s new essay film brings it to life like a cannonball, and credits Baldwin as the writer. Peck also draws on footage of Baldwin’s public appearances from the 1970s, and other archival material, like Baldwin’s letters and the FBI’s case file on him as a revolutionary prophet to be watched (which, let’s face it, is basically accurate).

What sets this film apart from other political docos is its profound emotionality. Spoken in melodious, low tones by Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin’s words ring out with an eloquent rage and passion that cannot be contained by the film frame. Peck pairs the sound with montages of the Black Lives Matters protests and portraits of Trayvon Martin and the other black youths slain by police in the last five years.

Though this missive may not be new, it’s relevant, as justice hasn’t been settled.

The message is clear: these new state murders are connected by history to those of Baldwin’s three close friends, to the all lynchings of the American south, back to slavery, to all the institutional dimensions of a racist society. Though Baldwin’s missive may not be new, it’s relevant, as justice hasn’t been settled.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he says. “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n*gger in the first place, because I’m not a n*gger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n*gger, it means you need it”. Civil rights were often framed in very religious terms by leaders of that time. But with these words, Baldwin repositions black equality not as a problem for black people to rise up against, but as a shadowy moral smudge on white people and white power structures that turn away from it.

I Am Not Your Negro is not a matter of dry, academic history. The past lives in the present, says Baldwin, and when Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Blacker the Berry’ explodes over the rolling credits, you realise he’s dead right, and that some form of reckoning is soon on its way. This urgent, vital film is a gunshot communique, not just imagining but predicting justice.

Lauren Carroll Harris has been published in Guardian Australia, Metro and Meanjin. She tweets from @LCarrollHarris.