It’s time to Break It Down!
It has been said there’s a first time for everything; also that there is a time and a place for everything under the sun. In those lights, and in full disclosure, I have not previously used this space to review a movie. In the broadest sense, I am doing that today.
I finally went to see the film, I Am Not Your Negro, this weekend. I presume most folks who frequent this space are culturally literate, woke, conscious, or otherwise attuned to contemporary culture, however you may characterize that sense of being. With that knowledge uppermost in mind, I’ll begin by providing a simple 30,000 feet bird’s eye summary and then go deeper. The movie is a 2016 American documentary film. It was directed by Raoul Peck, and is based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson provides narration. The key objective of the film is to explore the history of racism in America through the lens of Mr. Baldwin’s reminiscences of three iconic black civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All three men were assassinated between June 1963 and April 1968, each before his 40th birthday. They were Baldwin’s contemporaries. He was born the year before Medgar and Malcolm, and five years before the Rev. Dr. King.
The picture was widely acclaimed, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature last month at the 89th Academy Awards. Prior to that it premiered in September 2016 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. There, it won the People’s Choice Award in the category of Documentary Films. A short while later, Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios acquired the film’s distribution rights. It was preliminarily released in December 2016 in order to qualify for this year’s Oscars. Subsequently, the filmed had its primary opening in February 2017.
In addition to garnering an Academy Award Nomination and winning a People’s Choice Award, its Rotten Tomatoes approval rating is 98%, based on 107 reviews, with an average rating of 9/10. The summary review on the website reads:
“I Am Not Your Negro offers an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s crucial observations on American race relations — and a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.”
On Metacritic, the film has a score of 96 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating “universal acclaim.”
The breadth of critical acclaim the film has attracted is voluminous, with numerous nominations, some of which are still pending. However, it has actually won the following:
- Black Film Critics Circle – Special Mention
- 52nd Chicago International Film Festival – Audience Choice/Best Documentary
- Hampton International Film Festival – Audience Award/Best Documentary
- International Documentary Association – Creative Recognition Award/Best Writing – Raoul Peck
- International Documentary Association – Creative Recognition Award/Best Writing – James Baldwin
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards – Best Documentary Film
- Philadelphia Film Festival – Audience Award/Best Feature
- Philadelphia Film Festival – Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature
- San Francisco Film Critics Circle – Best Documentary Film
- St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association – Best Documentary Film
- 41st Toronto International Film Festival – People’s Choice Award
- IndieWire Critics Poll – Best Documentary/3rd Place, Best Editing/9th Place
- National Society of Film Critics Awards – Best Non-Fiction Film/Runner-up
- Village Voice Film Poll – Best Documentary/3rd Place (Tied w/No Home Movie)
The listing of nominations is equally long and includes:
- Academy Awards – Best Documentary
- Alliance of Women Film Journalists – Best Documentary, Best Editing
- Austin Film Critics Association Awards – Best Documentary
- Black Reel Awards – Best Documentary
- Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association – Best Documentary Film
- Florida Film Critics Award – Best Documentary Film
- Gotham Awards – Audience Award, Best Documentary
- Hampton International Film Festival – Brizzolara Family Foundation Award For a Film of Conflict and Resolution – Best Film
- Independent Spirit Award – Best Documentary Feature
- International Documentary Association – IDA Award for Best Feature, Video Source Award
- NAACP Image Award – Outstanding Documentary – Film
- North Carolina Film Critics Association – Best Documentary Film
- Online Film Critics Society – Best Documentary Film
- Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association Awards – Best Documentary
There are also several nominations still pending, including:
- Central Ohio Film Critics Association – Best Documentary
- Cinema Eye Honors Awards, US – Cinema Eye Honors Choice Prize, Outstanding Achievement in Non-Fiction Feature Filmmaking, Outstanding Achievement in Direction, Outstanding Achievement in Editing, Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score
In February 2017, Vintage International, a Division of Random House published the book, “I Am Not Your Negro,” as a companion document to the movie. This is arguably one of those rare instances in which the movie preceded the book, sort of. Needless to say, the framework for the book came into being long before the movie debuted. That’s a fair point, and one I am not contesting.
I noted earlier that I “finally” got to see the film. I became aware of it from a trailer back in December when it was initially released. I knew right away I wanted to see it.
The story begins with Baldwin’s reflections on that moment, while living in France as an expatriate, that he came to realize he felt the pull of an irresistible magnetic force to return home and engage more directly with what was this country’s quintessential civil rights movement. He was irrevocably moved by the image of a young black girl, Dorothy Counts, in Charlotte, North Carolina, being confronted by a white mob as she integrated the city’s Harding High School.
Upon returning to the United States, Baldwin wrote a number of essays about the movement for various periodicals, including, Harper’s, Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Progressive
During his travels, he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, among many other notables engaged in the struggle for human equality and economic empowerment. He would come to know, work with, and write extensively about all three of the principals and the work they did in an effort to move America to redeem itself of the vestiges of its original sin. Over the course of his travels across America, observing and writing, he would have occasions to review and chronicle the lives, the work, and the deaths of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin. Moreover, he began work on what would have been a seminal work on the depth and scope of the Movement, entitled, Remember This House. That unfinished work became I Am Not Your Negro, and addresses among other things, the different and similar views and approaches of this triumvirate of members of the Movement’s pantheon of martyrs.
Obviously I am no film critic. But after nearly a decade of occupying this space, I do consider myself an active social commentator. It is in that role, I enthusiastically recommend this film for your viewing. In fact, I would suggest adding it to your personal catalogue/library. Even if you view the world through a different lens than any of the prominent characters in the story, it is worthwhile to have direct access to a number of real time accounts and reflections by someone who was in the midst of, or on the periphery of, these incredibly important historic events. At the very least, to paraphrase part of the Rotten Tomatoes review, despite however far we have or haven’t come, it is “a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.”
That’s all I’ve got. “Baldwin’s Reminiscences: Chicken Soup for the Afrocentric Soul!” I’m done; holla back!
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