Not a Movie Review: "I Am Not Your Negro"

One of the things that always strikes me about documentaries is just how powerful a tool the form can be. Wielded correctly, with laser focus, it burns away all the extraneous nonsense and gets to the core of an issue; the heart of a problem. Wielded incorrectly, it’s a blunt instrument, one that causes you to feel by bashing you over the head until you do.

“Blackfish” is a great example of the latter. It pounds at you over and over and over again until you submit even if you can see that there are far better ways to make the argument. “I Am Not Your Negro” is the opposite, it is a laser and it sets its sights on showing just how far this country still has to go with race relations.

Coming from the work of James Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck, and with narration from Samuel L. Jackson, “I Am Not Your Negro” deftly moves between multiple moments in the 20th and 21st Centuries to show what has changed, what hasn’t, and just what’s wrong with our nation. Every moment in the film is a powerful one, every phrase uttered is important. The whole film is centered around a book Baldwin contemplated writing about the lives and work of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and we hear not just Jackson’s reading, but Baldwin himself speak at multiple different moments. He is allowed to build his own case through archival footage.

And here’s the thing – I’m not going to focus on the movie itself for the rest of this piece. I am going to tell you that you need to go out and see it and while you’re at it, you need to go out and see Ava DuVernay’s “13th.” Then you need to stop and turn on the news. You need to watch as protests take place all across this country, and take place for one reason – the desire of the current presidential administration to water the seeds of separation and hatred and resentment and bigotry (those seeds were sewn a long time ago).

A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed that Americans are divided about the travel ban Mr. Trump put into place. Reuters writes about the results that the “poll found that 49 percent of Americans agreed with the order and 41 percent disagreed.” The way I read that, it means that 49% of the respondents aren’t paying attention. They refuse to acknowledge that their ancestors once arrived on this shore from another country. They refuse to see that we need to help others when we can. They don’t accept that this country doesn’t have a national religion. They cannot see that there is more than one way to enter the country. They are unaware that zero people in this country have been killed in terrorist attacks on our soil from anyone in those seven nations…

I could go on here. I could continue and offer more examples of the blindness and the ignorance and the insanity of it. But, I won’t.

We seem to live in a day and age where facts don’t matter. Where people watch niche news outlets that serve their narrow interest and don’t care if the outlet spews lies. Where our President calls honest, upright, forthright institutions that point out his lies “fake news,” and refuses to take their questions. Where one major political party is willing to throw away everything they ever stood for in order to follow a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex.

And people on the other side of the argument would say to me… what? That I just don’t get how someone who looks differently than me being in this country is a danger? That it was different when their ancestors came here because they were Christian? That this religion that grows out of Judaism and Christianity is somehow that substantially different than its antecedents? Those statements are ludicrous.

Freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our nation and while documentaries like “I Am Not Your Negro” make it quite clear that we have not had in the past, and certainly do not yet have, true equality here, it is something to which we all must strive.

To quote Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I believe that, but I also believe that we need to fight for that justice. We need to strive for it. We need to help bring it to others, and by doing so help give it to ourselves.

We are not made less because others are made more. This is not a zero sum game and treating it as such is a great way to take several steps backwards in that fight for justice.

So—taking a deep breath—those are the lofty ideals and things to which we should all aspire, but if you feel like you’re caught in the nitty-gritty reality and simply can’t see a way out, try this thought: we are not made more safe by taking things away from other people. Stripping away rights, treating people miserably, and being a generally rotten human being to those around you does not make you more safe. In fact, it makes you less safe. It makes those you have treated badly desperate and desperate people can (aren’t always, but can) be dangerous.

The logic by which such actions are taken is not logic that holds up. It is the same as the logic which states that we must stop scientists from publicly stating facts because those facts—those indisputable facts—disagree with our political opinions. If your opinions don’t stand up to the facts, your opinions need to change, not vice versa.

It is our responsibility on this planet to treat others humanely, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, and no matter what god(s) they believe in (if indeed they believe at all). A look at our history, the look afforded in “I Am Not Your Negro,” makes it quite clear that this nation has repeatedly failed at this effort, but that doesn’t mean we should stop striving.

We can and must do better.

photo credit: Magnolia Pictures/© Dan Budnik, all rights reserved.

Categories: Random Thoughts

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