I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

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DarkImbecile
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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#1 Post by DarkImbecile » Wed Mar 01, 2017 6:34 pm

Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro very much earned its Best Documentary nomination at this year's Oscars, and in any other year without O.J.: Made in America would have been a much stronger contender for the award itself.

The film's use of James Baldwin's unfinished writings (ably narrated by an unusually understated and quiet Samuel L. Jackson), public appearances by the author and other prominent civil-rights-era figures, and footage - both contemporary and from the period of Baldwin's life - are pretty masterfully woven into an unexpectedly urgent and relevant commentary on revolutionary and reactionary American racial politics. Several sequences of voiceover and montage are powerful enough to provoke an emotional reaction, especially those illustrating how truly close in both time and experience the upheaval of the mid-20th century is to the era of Obama and Trump. The interspersing of Baldwin's personal reflections of his life and his role as a public figure sharing a stage with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X with his more philosophical societal observations is remarkably effective in providing a strong sense of the man, his work, and the context in which he and it existed.

Somewhat surprisingly, a substantial chunk of I Am Not Your Negro is given over to film criticism, with Baldwin's reflections on the representations of race in film from his childhood through adulthood presented over clips from the films. To me, the most striking element of these segments was Baldwin's description (I'm paraphrasing here) of the way even films critiquing racism and racial oppression still couldn't ever quite resist depicting their white protagonists as mistaken, ignorant, or confused but never actually evil, benefiting from systemic discrimination enforced by violence but doing so innocently and without true malice. After I Am Not Your Negro ended, I went to the second film of of my double feature next door, which of course was Hidden Figures, a film featuring what could be the Platonic ideal of that exact type of depiction of its white characters:
SpoilerShow
The Kevin Costner and a crowbar vs. the "colored" bathroom sign and the arc of Kirsten Dunst's character.

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knives
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Re: The Films of 2016

#2 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 10:13 am

I can't be the only who finds the casting of Jackson in I Am Not Your Negro as a significant white washing that spills over into a general homophobia by lack of speech spread throughout the whole film. Now I understand how Baldwin's homosexuality is largely beyond the view of the film though I think it would complicate the end into a more satisfying product. Still for the first and largely only reference to his homosexuality being a vague and villainous report from the FBI suggests the film views his homosexuality as separate from his identity as a black man which is nothing short of prejudicial. I also distrust the film for saying it was written by rather than from Baldwin when the pauses, interjections, and visuals are most definitely not written by him. It's a lie on the nature of the film essay.

These are very fundamental problems that must be seriously considered when talking about this film because it is in the end such a good film intelligently dealing with the unending loop that is life for African Americans and how all Americans need to acknowledge this. The story is told in a compelling way that understands the fictions that film necessarily imposes and the choices of film clips included (outside of maybe Stagecoach) highlights this. That doesn't even go into how delightful it is just to hear Bladwin's words and some of Malcolm X's. All of this is sincerely great which obligates the audience to be honest about its massive failings as a homophobic work. After all even some of Bladwin's explicitly gay words in the film are used without his sexuality and merely his ethnicity which is a horrible hypocrisy that makes me want to wash all of this out with the superior Tongues Untied.

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Re: The Films of 2016

#3 Post by DarkImbecile » Thu Sep 14, 2017 11:15 am

knives wrote: After all even some of Bladwin's explicitly gay words in the film are used without his sexuality and merely his ethnicity which is a horrible hypocrisy that makes me want to wash all of this out with the superior Tongues Untied.
Can you provide some examples? I'm surprised by the force of your reaction to this, as it seemed to me at the time that the film allowed the man to speak directly through recorded lectures, TV appearances, etc. to an extent that would seem to counteract the criticism you're raising.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#4 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 11:33 am

As I said from the start I find Jackson to be very poor casting. Admittedly I can't think of who would make a good Baldwin, but I'm not a casting director. In many respects Baldwin's voice was his most obvious expression of his sexuality while Jackson in his voice and star is in many ways THE serious, heterosexual, black man which given the race based nature of the film makes sense, but quarters off the man by denying him his sexuality. This ties really well with the discussion of black stars as sexual icons. To deny a heterosexed black man is to deny a gay one as well an idea Peck never really deals with. This comes at a head with Baldwin's words on In the Heat of the Night which are explicitly gay words, but Peck frames them exclusively in terms of race reconciliation separating two components of the man that Baldwin himself seems to have seen as intimately connected.

So to be more clear, yes the film does give the man opportunity to speak for himself, but the world of the film defines that archive footage as black footage alone, not as gay black footage (which is why I mentioned Marlon Riggs' excellent film which discusses this issue in depth). Jackson is many things, gay is not one of them.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#5 Post by DarkImbecile » Thu Sep 14, 2017 11:40 am

Interesting points. I'll admit that this didn't occur to me at all upon first viewing, but I'll be curious to rewatch with this in mind to see how appropriate that lens feels. I saw this at a point this past winter where race in culture and politics was very much at the forefront of my mind, perhaps to the extent that it blocked out other relevant concerns.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#6 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 11:45 am

Certainly that is the film's concerns as well and if you look at the film as a fiction describing the very real problems of race in America now it is great, but when you look at Baldwin the real man it comes across as whitewashing and I do want to make that distinction.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#7 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 3:39 pm

I have to admit that the more this stews in my head the more offense I'm taking with Peck's tactics here using and abusing the words of Baldwin to erase concepts of intersectionality that are essential to his artistic character. What's all the more frustrating is that, as far as I can see, no professionally critic has taken a stance of this film's homophobia. In fact the only other anything I've seen mention this has been some Letterboxd reviews and only one goes in depth on why this is such a major problem.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#8 Post by Apperson » Thu Sep 14, 2017 3:42 pm

knives wrote:I have to admit that the more this stews in my head the more offense I'm taking with Peck's tactics here using and abusing the words of Baldwin to erase concepts of intersectionality that are essential to his artistic character. What's all the more frustrating is that, as far as I can see, no professionally critic has taken a stance of this film's homophobia. In fact the only other anything I've seen mention this has been some Letterboxd reviews and only one goes in depth on why this is such a major problem.
I assume you haven't read this piece?

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#9 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 3:47 pm

That was the Letterboxd review I was referring to.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#10 Post by Apperson » Thu Sep 14, 2017 3:51 pm

In the comments he also mentions a Letterbox review which briefly mentions and then excuses the erasure of Baldwin's sexuality, what do you make of that?

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knives
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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#11 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 3:59 pm

I didn't really bother to read Sally Jane Black's full review, but that's mostly because I dislike their writing style and point of view so much in general. It doesn't come a shock to me that there came an objectionable review.


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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#13 Post by Werewolf by Night » Thu Sep 14, 2017 5:45 pm

FWIW, I agree with your take on the film's erasure of Baldwin's sexuality and think it's a major problem with the film. At the same time, I didn't think it was a very good film to begin with, so I didn't bother to post here or elsewhere on it.

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Re: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

#14 Post by knives » Thu Sep 14, 2017 5:48 pm

I think ignoring Baldwin the film is at least far superior to most of the documentaries that catches the public's eye. It's certainly better than Fire at Sea and Life, Animated for example. Though those two are fairly bottom of the barrel.
Even a crazy person is right twice some measurement of time. Though that is amazing in its failed bizzaro poetics. Sometimes I miss his crazy. I essentially agree with what I think he's saying here, but man does he add a lot of nonsense to that point. For example I think the BLM stuff works to the benefit of the film, but it doesn't really involve the complex of the man who could have remained anonymous for how the film treats him. Instead it treats his words as mere observation which does dumb them down quite a bit. Also Baldwin's words on Potier are if anything the most relevant part of the film.

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