‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and the Limits of White Imagination

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and the Limits of White Imagination

Overview

Has cinema become the de facto leader of the Black community? It would certainly seem so. After watching months of the new president entertain a Black “Celebrity Apprentice,” litany of entertainers, rappers, former athletes, the son of MLK and, most recently, Pastor Darrell Scott, there’s a nigh-palpable feeling that there’s a void. The community’s likely unanimous pick, Barack Obama, has long since handed Trump the keys and absconded to a Fortress of Solitude in Hawaii and other warm climates. In the wake of that departure, the sense of a Black public figure that captures our collective will, brilliance and imagination has been lacking.

Our likeliest ones are aging and have now more often functioned as symbolic figures to rally behind and uphold out of reverence; when Trump attacked John Lewis via Twitter on MLK Day weekend, the reaction was not only viral, but reverential in tone. He’s done so much for us. Respect our history. Respect our struggle. There’s a feeling that as those sort of pillars disappear — either from our imagination or the earth — the bench is looking decidedly thinner. There’s some hope in Ta-Nehisi Coates, but his sweet spot seems to be more the pen than the public pulpit, an impassioned, parsing thinker who distills the id of our struggle but is not interested in being the face of the Black movement so much as our brilliant moral scribe.

Recent theatrical releases, though, have managed to imprint the African-American narrative, adamantly stating our collective humanity to the mainstream. Ava Duvernay’s “13th” restated our systemic oppression, “Moonlight” our humanity and “OJ: Made in America” our injustice. This week, Raoul Peck’s vision of James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro” arrives in theaters to restore our conscience.