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A Glimpse into James Bladwin’s Mind: A Film Analysis of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jul 26, 2023 | 0 Comments

Learning about race and thinking about race are two different actions, even if they are not exclusive to one another. It's not just in a book or at an annual conference event as a forum discussion that the whole workplace is required to attend. It is an identity that has an actual reality, one that you cannot disguise.

Director Raoul Peck created I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that can be initially viewed as one that Baldwin is just a part of, but Baldwin becomes the driving force of the captivating film through its entirety.

The foundation consists of the unfinished book projects of 30 pages that Baldwin left behind called “Remember This House,” mentioning great figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Medger Evers, and Malcolm X, whom James had gotten to all know personally before their passings due to horrific assassinations. Evers was killed on June 12, 1963 at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, at age 37. Malcolm was killed on February 21, 1965 in Manhattan, New York, at age 39. King was killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, at age 39.

The focus on his ideas than just race relations and critical theory itself brings in an important viewpoint of one of the greatest essayists known to American history. Many components of the film were honestly not a part of my initial expectations, it became a great following of how Baldwin's position of how the Black man survives and navigates a criminalizing society isn't just a white person becoming the default hater. It has a lot to do with his identity not automatically seen as binary to those around him and towards himself, and the outlook of the world as a queer person.

His shortened journal talks about his childhood with a white teacher named Bill Miller that was a white person who was hated by white people because she was not like other white people, just a decent person that treated her students with respect that was not derived from colorblindness. I think that was a big part of Baldwin's belief that not all white people are not evil, an ideological difference compared to Malcolm X's leadership in the Black Panther Party.

Not knowing Baldwin's religious affiliation prior to watching the film, learning his reasoning for not wanting any association to the Christian Church and following Islam had a lot to do with him never being served properly by the community that is prioritized by this country. He tells crowds in numerous clips shown about how his presence is not owned and does not equate to just trauma and classification, but he is part of an existence that is not to be ignored because white supremacy said so.

He mentions a great quite with partly saying that he is not a ward of America or an object of missionary charity, but as a person who has built this country like many others. Popular culture is greatly analyzed by Baldwin with centering the Black man and his masculinity, where sexuality is constructed and monolithic to film and television, a kiss never shared or a reaction that shows vulnerability for examples. Baldwin also mentions movies and actors that reinforce racist stereotypes that are stretched out for decades as realities for many non-Black viewers to trust and even be entertained by.

The Ithacan makes a great notice on how Baldwin mentions how the Black community in the United States have been portrayed in media and what that means for the intention of racial representation and political progress:

“This focus on race in popular culture forces white viewers to realize that films can operate as a medium of denial and a way to convince white people that relations with people of color are cordial, respectful. They are part of a greater scheme to induce white people into believing that they have no responsibility in mending race relations. The documentary points out that this only influences white people to believe that race is no longer a problem in a way that blinds them to the very stake they have in white supremacy and oppression.”

Baldwin brings up his experiences with MLK Jr., Malcolm X, and Medger in their uprisings as leaders and Black men in corrupting America, how they were all perceived from both Black and white audiences along their lifetime, even what happened after they had passed.

According to KERA, the result is an interpretive essayistic documentary that surveys how the civil rights movement and America's failures to wholly embrace it are still frightenly relevant and continue to shape our current times. Many parallels of this juxtaposition of a film from how today's patterns of race as a reinforced, scientific reality to produce the actual reality of racism and capitalism combined, as a power that does still have that possibility of being brought down. That is if only white supremacy is destructed by those who contribute to it most, white people. Cheap labor and the lie of pretended humanism cannot be seen as just things that are in the past, because the Black community has and is continuously robbed of from this country, one we have ensured ourselves as one to succeed from under the lie of the American Dream.

I do believe that the juxtaposition of the film has some flaws, and that Baldwin's queerness could have been better represented, but it is still a documentary that I believe would have an impact on anyone who would watch it. I will definitely rewatch this incredible film in the future.

The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but lost to Ezra Edelman's 8-hour epic “O.J.: Made In America.” However, I Am Not Your Negro was awarded the Creative Recognition Award by the International Documentary Association, as well as the Amnesty International Award from the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, the Gilda Vieira de Mello Award from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and the Panorama Audience Award from the Berlin International Film Festival.

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