The Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro is going into (relatively) wide-release this weekend and you may have been catching bits and pieces of information about it as it slowly makes its way into theaters nationwide. Is this a movie for the kids? Read on to find out.
1. What is it about?
This documentary is about the book author and civil rights activist James Baldwin was writing at the time of his death in 1987. The book, Remember This House, was to be Baldwin’s personal account of his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. and would detail their lives and eventual assassinations from an incredibly personal vantage point. Baldwin left behind only 30 completed pages of his manuscript, however, so what we have in this film is director Raoul Peck’s attempt to synthesize Baldwin’s work with his own experience of race-relations in the United States.
2. That sounds pretty heavy; is it?
Absolutely, but it’s an approachable kind of heavy. This isn’t a movie to see if you’re planning on following up your day at the movies with a trip to the ice cream shop. This is a heavy topic and is almost assuredly going to end with you wanting some quiet time to think.
3. So is it good? Is it worth seeing?
This documentary finds itself in the rare position of being critically acclaimed, positively reviewed by audiences, incredibly troubling, and making a lot of money. The footage of James Baldwin speaking is electrifying in a subtle, quiet way. I found myself always wanting to hear more of his voice and, after the film, I read two of his novels and watched every video clip of him speaking I could find. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the movie, often simply reading Baldwin’s own manuscripts, and does so with power and tenderness. The editors of the film deserve an award, in my humble opinion, simply for the way they were able to stitch together footage from the earliest days of film, the civil-rights activists of the ’50s and ’60s, and protests that seem to have happened much too recently to already be documented in film. It’s a beautiful movie, not only in the way that something deeply emotional can be beautiful, but also simply because of the visual imagery put forward by the cinematographers, editors, and director.
4. What’s it rated?
PG-13, and for good reason. Oftentimes I will see a PG-13 rating and assume it’s fine for my 11-year-old to watch (and if I’m being wholly honest, my 8-year-old twins too) but for this film, I would pay strict attention to the rating. This rating isn’t because of one-too-many curse words. There are scenes depicting brutal violence against men, women, and children, images of men who were lynched, and footage from protests and riots full of the kind of language you can expect to occur at protests and riots.
5. About the title? What if I’m a little uncomfortable with words like that?
A great portion of this movie consists of footage shot in the 1950s and 1960s when words like this were much more common in the public arena. Make no mistake, there is disturbing language in this movie, and the title only gives a hint of the kind of things you will see and hear in the film. Count on being uncomfortable in this movie if language about race disturbs you.
6. Should my kids see it?
That is an incredibly difficult question to answer. As I said before, the movie is rated PG-13 and I really think that’s appropriate. I think it’s an incredibly important topic and timely given that we are deep into Black History Month; there’s no shying away from the fact that this film chronicles a very dark part of the American experience. My 14-year-old daughter is a person of color and racial issues are an incredibly real part of her everyday life. I’m absolutely going to sit down and watch this film with her, and I’m going to have a careful dialog with her after it’s over. I think it’s a powerful teaching tool and I think it will forever be in the list of movies that I use to explain race, justice, and oppression to children. Every family is different, however, and I recognize that not everyone is ready to approach these topics in such a raw fashion. If you are interested in beginning to address difficult subjects and acting as a guide for your children, this movie may not be the best place to begin the process.
7. When’s a good time to sneak out for a bathroom break?
At just over 90-minutes, I wouldn’t recommend missing a single second of this film. So much of what makes this movie powerful is the pacing and editing, so I’m afraid if you took a 5-minute break at any point in it the spell would be broken. If you think this might be an issue for your family, I would highly recommend waiting until it comes out on streaming media so you can watch at home and pause if it becomes necessary to take a break.
8. Should I see it in the theater or wait until I can stream it?
First of all, despite a wider-release this weekend, this movie is still considered a limited release so it may be difficult to find near you. If this is a topic you care deeply about, however, I would recommend seeing it in a theater. The visual impact of the film is such that I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience it there if you have the option. On a slightly more practical note, this film is poised to be a money-making venture for Magnolia, the production studio distributing the film, and that’s a rare treat for a documentary. I believe this is exactly the kind of movie we want big studios to pay attention to and fund in the future, and nothing gets scripts filmed like money from the box office. I’d love to continue to see this film get press and, if possible, get pushed to wide-release by the studio, and part of what can make that a reality is plunking down dollars at the theater.
9. What else can you tell me about James Baldwin?
I don’t know much and, sadly, I have to admit he’s a new character to me in the civil rights story. He was born in 1924 in New York City and grew up in Harlem. He is well-known as a writer of essays focused on the black experience in America. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is considered an autobiographical account of his childhood in Harlem and is consistently ranked as one of the best novels of the 20th century. I read this novel shortly after watching this documentary and I was overwhelmed by its honesty and the beauty of Baldwin’s prose. Sexuality, race, and religion are prominent in Baldwin’s work and his voice seems completely at home in the 21st century. In fact, it surprised me how relevant and timely a work published in 1953 felt when I read it.
9a. If he was so important to the civil rights movement and such close friends with the leaders of that movement, how come I haven’t heard of him?
In the film, Baldwin touches on this subject. He describes himself as an observer of events and not necessarily as an agent of change himself. His role, he says, was not an easy one, even though he felt that it was critical to the movement. In the movie, he shared that he “was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.” While it must have been hard on his soul to be surrounded by this kind of change and feel compelled to observe, reflect, and write about it instead of doing it, I’m eternally thankful that we have his work as a witness to this time in history.
10. Do you think it’s going to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film?
There are some powerful contenders in the category this year, to be sure. I haven’t seen every single one of them (yet!) but my gut tells me it will come down to I Am Not Your Negro and 13th, a film examining the aftermath of the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow laws, and the “war on drugs.” The experts think that O.J.: Made in America has the edge, and it did capture the Best Documentary Feature award from the Producers Guild of America, but I just don’t think it will escape being just “a TV show.” In the end, I Am Not Your Negro and 13th are simply two of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, and the quality of what’s available today inspires me. I think both of these films are good enough to win and I will be excited for either one should they bring home the hardware.