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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary based on writer/activist James Baldwin's 1979 book proposal to write about three of his close friends: assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Baldwin never wrote more than 30 pages of the manuscript, the film uses the author's own words (including letters, televised interviews, etc.) to imagine what such an exploration of race would look like. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary includes contemporary examples of racial tensions in the United States as well as archival footage of lynchings, murdered civil rights leaders, the KKK, police officers hurting nonviolent protestors, and white supremacists chanting or protesting in favor of segregation. The language can get understandably strong, including frequent uses of the "N" word and more. But themes include perseverance and empathy, and Baldwin's views, despite being decades old, are still relevant and guaranteed to spark conversation.
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What's the story?
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO is a political documentary about writer-activist James Baldwin's unrealized final project -- a book called Remember This House that he intended to write about his three close friends, fallen civil rights heroes Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin was going to chronicle how the three men influenced one another and the entire public about the state of race in America, but in the end he never wrote more than 30 pages of the manuscript. Director Raoul Peck uses archival footage of photographs, televised interviews, and voiceover narration (by Samuel L. Jackson) of Baldwin's letters and writings to tie Baldwin's decades-old ideas to current racial tensions, issues, and movements, including Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality.
Is it any good?
James Baldwin is revealed to be both a poet and a prophet when it comes to his views on race in America in Peck's excellent exploration of racial tension in America. Jackson's voice performance is brilliant as he reads Baldwin's letters and writings, but it's Baldwin himself who's the star of I Am Not Your Negro. In archival footage, he makes talk show hosts squirm and never backs away from discussing bitter truths. Returning to America from his artistic ex-pat life in Paris had to be heartbreaking, but Baldwin felt compelled to be among his family, his streets, his people. As Baldwin discusses the civil rights leaders he knew, it's clear that they were close, personal friends whose deaths profoundly impacted him.
In interview after interview, lecture after lecture, debate after debate, Baldwin makes it clear that the America of the '60s and '70s had in no way healed from centuries of slavery, racial oppression, and segregation. He explains the desperation that led to riots and protests. He cries out with the horror and pain of someone bereaved when discussing the murders of civil rights icons and the premature death of Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In addition to footage of Baldwin, there's occasional contemporary shots of Black Lives Matters protests, movies, and the Ferguson demonstrations. While this film isn't exactly easy viewing, it's insightful and absolutely relevant to today's ideologically divided America.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the archival footage of violence depicted in I Am Not Your Negro. How does it relate to the voice-over? What message is it intended to send?
What did you learn about James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. from the movie? Are their ideas and concerns still relevant?
What does Baldwin mean when he says that racism isn't a racial problem, but a human problem? How is that thought applicable today? What about the idea that "white is a metaphor for power"?
Baldwin isn't particularly forgiving to the media, particularly television ("to watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality"). Do you agree with his position? Why or why not? Has anything changed since he made his observations?
- In theaters: February 3, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: May 2, 2017
- Cast: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
- Director: Raoul Peck
- Studio: Magnolia Pictures
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Activism, History
- Character strengths: Empathy, Perseverance
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity
- Last updated: May 21, 2020
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