Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

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This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM

Why Are You Listening to Me? (Another poem by a white person you shouldn’t bother to read)

Why Are You Listening to Me?

Nothing I can say will carry the weight
Of dead and dying and broken and bloody and forgotten
Victims of a system that sees them not
And a public that sees them only for a moment
As a hashtag, as a name on a protest sign
As a mugshot thrown up by media who sells the image
Of a deserving victim, somehow, instead of father
Mother, soldier, sibling, student, angel child

Nothing I can say will lessen the weight
Of anxious tears spilling down the cheeks
Of yesterday’s mother or wife, bearing rushed witness
Desperate for her loss to be heard and felt
In 60 second clips, on the top of every hour
For a day, at most, until another mourner is queued up
An endless cycle of news and blood: wash, rinse, and repeat

Nothing I can say will cast off the weight
Of utter certainty that tomorrow’s headlines
Will be the same as yesterday’s and today’s
Where only the names are changed
And no one’s innocence is protected
And every death is justified

Nothing I can say will transform the weight
Carried by those whose black and brown bodies
Are burdened by the hundred million ways
They are judged, thwarted, held down, beaten, and murdered
For living in a world which centers my whiteness
Every time I open my mouth to speak

So don’t.
Don’t forget them.
Don’t settle for a mug shot.
Don’t limit their grief to a moment.
Don’t let the days and deaths all blend together.
Don’t listen first or most to those white voices you find familiar.
Find the words, screams, pain, and hurt of those affected, and let them speak to you, instead.

Listen to them.