Film review: I Am Not Your Negro

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 10 April 2017 | Last updated 11 December 2020

Poster about 4 feet high and 5 feet wide, showing the eyes of Stanley Baldwin in a slit. Poster in a black frame, mounted on black railings, at ground level.
12 April 2017: An advertisement for the film I Am Not Your Negro in the street in London. The phrases “ACADEMY AWARD” and “BEST DOCUMENTARY” are prominent, with “NOMINATED” between them in a much smaller font. In fact, this film did not win the “Best documentary” Academy Award. The poster includes the quote “One of the best films you're likely to see this year”, attributed to the New York Times.

On around 9pm the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse showed the film ‘I am not your Negro’, directed by Raoul Peck, to an almost empty auditorium.

At the start of this film, 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.