Seeing a film called "I Am Not Your Negro"

A Cambridge Journal, Friday 7 April 2017

This evening around 9pm in an almost empty auditorium at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse I watched a film called "I am not your Negro", directed by Raoul Peck.

The cinema

In the Arts Picturehouse while paying the £11 in advance, I asked about something I remembered from years before - the seemingly interminable advertisements before the film. The man on the cash desk confirmed that with the official start time of 20:30 if I arrived at 20:45 I "would not miss anything". I forgot to look at my watch but I think this may have been an understatement.

The film

At the start, I knew nothing about Baldwin and very little about this particular chapter of the murderous history of the USA. By the end, 95 minutes later, the increase in what I knew on these subjects was not much, but it was enough to be sure that James Baldwin was a lot more intelligent than this film, which would be more accurately described as patronising persuasion than informative documentary.

This is a film with no narration that informs or explains - all the narrated words are (presumably) Baldwin's. At least, there is consistently a first person in the narration that is, or is pretending to be, Baldwin. The film is careful not to explain this but what looked like a long list of Baldwin's writings appeared in the credits.

It consists essentially of archive footage and the narration. There is no new document, no interviews, no evidence of research. It seems unlikely that this so-called documentary inserted a single new fact into the public record.

The more memorable parts of the film are footage of Baldwin speaking, for example in talk shows on television and addressing a packed Cambridge Union in 1965, for which he received a standing ovation.

There is also a first hand description of a meeting which included Bobby Kennedy, at the time USA Attorney General, and a woman who requested of him that his brother JFK, the president of the USA, would walk with a black girl into a school. This was refused, and Baldwin (presumably) wrote that Bobby Kennedy seemed to think we were wasting his time.

Towards the end, it abandons all pretence of documentary and slides towards patronising propaganda, although without a clear agenda. In an especially nauseating sequence, the film arranges a gratuitous line of non whites in front of the camera, like animals in a zoo, for the viewing pleasure of the audience.

In the credits, the European Union is listed as one of the funders of the film.