I Am Not Your Negro: A deconstruction of “black iconography”
by Juliette Borel - Cinergie
- Raoul Peck’s highly acclaimed documentary holds up an alternative mirror to the deformities inflicted by the hypocritical American dream and its ideology
Directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro [+see also:
film profile] was presented in Toronto in 2016, screened at the Berlinale in the Panorama Dokumente section and is currently featuring at two international documentary festivals in Belgium: Docville, in Leuven, which it opened, and Millennium, in Brussels. This is a provocative and poetic work, bringing to life the words of James Baldwin and, more specifically, one of his unfinished texts. This manuscript had been entrusted to Raoul Peck by the writer’s wife and sought to tell the story of America through three key figures of the civil rights movement, each of whom were assassinated within the same 5-year period: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Baldwin inhabits his writing entirely: the personality of the writer is omnipresent, from his powerful tone to his imposing physique. His smile speaks volumes about the response he’s about to fling back in the face of his interlocuter, diagnosing out and out racism or misplaced relativism. The distinctive voice of Samuel L. Jackson seems to envelop each and every fragment of the text. His narration of the sequence of images depicting Martin Luther King’s burial is nothing short of gut-wrenching. The rhythm of the words and of the music come together, accompanying the tracking shots and dreamlike images of roads, landscapes or towns that are a space to draw breath in an otherwise steady stream of sounds and visuals. Raoul Peck applies what he describes as his “own emotional syntax” to this film.
Peck sets about deconstructing “black iconography” by punctuating the narrative with film extracts or advertisements. His analysis proclaims his subjectivity, flying in the face of the imposed dominant discourse, offering a fresh perspective and shining an alternative light on the subject. It was through the glaring absence of Afro-Americans on the big screen that the writer was able to develop a sense of the power issues at play, even as a child, and to understand that if they were to be represented anywhere on screen, it would likely be alongside the persecuted American-Indians. On the rare occasions where black people aren’t entirely absent or mere caricatures in film, they are portrayed as victims, but victims who are accepting of their lot and devoid of any revolutionary spirit. Although there has been some progress in black representation, the dichotomy of how they are portrayed persists to this day: the same scene, produced by a white director and intended to be “progressive”, will receive an entirely different response from the audience depending on their skin colour, and this because black people will not tolerate the world of film depriving them of their actors, or using them to simply satisfy some moralistic storyline. The sex-appeal of actors like Brando or Dean is on clear display in the imagery of films, but that of actors such as Sydney Poitier or Harry Belafonte seems wholly denied, revelatory of the bad faith of the film industry that annihilates an otherwise undeniable sensuality. In the face of the deformed reflections that have been produced by this one ideology - that of the hypocritical American dream - I Am Not Your Negro holds out an alternative mirror, offering us a different view.
One thing is for sure: I Am Not Your Negro is a film that plays on the mind. It shakes and challenges us to the point that any dismissal of personal responsibility is impossible. It forces us to take a good hard look at our own tendencies towards lethargy, ensuring the resonance of one of Baldwin’s final sentences: "Not everything that we face can be changed, but nothing be changed until it is faced.” Just as I Am Not Your Negro is an open, ongoing work, so we too are incited to keep working on ourselves.
Read the full review here.
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(Translated from French by Michelle Mathery)
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