Mississippi gets its first look at the Oscar-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro Friday night at the Malco Oxford Commons as part of the Oxford Film Festival.
The documentary feature, based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, winning the People’s Choice Award, and is competing in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Academy Awards Feb. 26.
“Considering how much of the film revolves around Mississippi, I felt it was a perfect fit,” said Mark Rabinowitz, head documentary programmer for the Oxford festival.
Baldwin, a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic, is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western societies.
His novels include Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head. Essay collections include Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time.
Frustrated by the state of race relations in America, at age 24, Baldwin fled to France. He would live there for most of the rest of his life.
In 1979, Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent, Jay Acton, describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends: Evers (1963 in Jackson), Malcolm X (1965 in New York City) and King (1968 in Memphis).
“These three men were black, but it is not the color of their skin that connected them,” says Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro. “They fought on quite different battlefields. And quite differently. But in the end, all three were deemed dangerous. They were unveiling the haze of racial confusion.”
Baldwin was determined to expose and explore the similarities of the lives and assassinations of these three individuals and challenge the intent of America, Peck said.
Baldwin died at his home in Saint Paul de Vence, France, in 1987 at age 63, leaving behind 30 completed pages of his manuscript. Peck picks up where Baldwin left off.
“It’s like (Peck) took those pages and imagined a visual version of the completed story,” said Rabinowitz.
Peck began reading Baldwin’s writings as a 15-year-old Haitian searching for rational explanations to the contradictions he confronted in his “already nomadic life,” which took him from Haiti to Congo, France, Germany and the United States.
“Baldwin gave me a voice, gave me the words, gave me the rhetoric. All I knew through instinct or through experience, Baldwin gave it a name and a shape,” said Peck.
Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro also includes archival films of Baldwin discussing the state of black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, his appearances on TV shows, participation in televised debates and interviews.
Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister, gave Peck rights to Baldwin’s body of work over the course of 10 years. He knew that he wanted to bring the unfinished story to the screen, Peck said, and “attempt to analyze the deep structural explanation of America’s extreme violence upon black lives today.”
“It is one of the best films I have ever seen,” said Melanie Addington, executive director of the Oxford Film Festival. “It is an important film about civil rights, but it is also visual poetry.”
I Am Not Your Negro is not purely historical. It makes connections between the civil rights movement of the 2oth century and the present black lives matter movement.
“It’s great to have an Oscar-nominated film in our festival, but I hope there’s a lasting impact on those who view the original style documentary,” said Rabinowitz.
I Am Not Your Negro is one of 151 films to screen during the 14th annual Oxford Film Festival, which starts Wednesday, Feb. 15. Because demand to see the documentary is so great, a second screening has been added. The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday at Malco Commons and at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Oxford Conference Center.