The Best Films of the Decade: #33. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

| December 9, 2019
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In just 23 days, the decade will come to a close and so for movie lovers like me it is an opportunity to look over the decade of movies that are left behind. Over the next few weeks I am going to count down the best films of the past 10 years from #40 to #1. My choices are personal choices swayed by nothing but the love I have for this medium. These are all great movies. These films all achieved something great. All reached for something special. They are the best of the decade . . .

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Three years ago when I saw Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, I remember that I sat all the way through it trying to comprehend exactly what the movie was about.  When it was over, I dismissed it but I had a feeling that I had missed something.  This is a documentary about James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers and social critics of the 20th century.  He died of cancer in 1987 leaving behind pages of his unfinished memoir that make up this film’s narrative which are read by Samuel L. Jackson.

The film stayed on my mind and I had a feeling that something went over my head and so I had to see the film again, and again and again.  Four times I have taken the journey of this film and finally arrived at Peck’s intent.  He wants the film to be a view of American through the eyes of an African-American, more specifically through the eyes of a man who loves America but knows that it is deeply flawed and even more deeply contradictory.

What is odd about the film is that it isn’t overstuffed with old worn out footage of Baldwin himself.  We see America through old news footage, newspaper articles, on-screen texts and other bits and pieces.  The point is to show America as Baldwin saw it, as a strange and bloody place that proclaimed freedom but allowed itself to remain in the same god-forsaken social and racial trenches that it was in the first years after The Civil War.

That perspective is the film’s masterstroke.  We often see Baldwin with prominent figures of the revolutionary period, like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and we can spot him in photograph such as MLK’s funeral.  These images Peck holds all-too-briefly, and the result is that we feel that we are seeing history through Baldwin’s eyes.  Yes, his words are powerful and even beautiful, but Peck wants us to feel the journey of the man himself and understand why he wrote what he did.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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