By Gillian Puma, Staff Writer
On Oct. 18, 2017, Manhattan College presented the film “I Am Not Your Negro” in Hayden 100. Before the film was shown, Mehnaz Afridi of the religious studies department had a brief speech explaining what the film was about.
Directed by Raoul Peck, the film is presented in a documentary format with images and videos from the time of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s. The film takes inspiration from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House.” Narrated through Samuel L. Jackson, Peck takes us through the times of the Civil Rights Movements and the harsh realities that occurred less than sixty years ago.
James Baldwin had written “Remember This House” in the mid-1970s. Baldwin had been very close friends with very famous civil rights activists Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
Baldwin had discussed his ideas of publishing the book with his agent in 1979. Unfortunately, Baldwin died in 1987 at the age of 63, leaving only thirty complete pages of the manuscript. Peck dedicates this film to those details that were untold.
The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2016, and was then released in the United States on Feb. 3, 2017, after the events of last year’s presidential election.
Despite being a film based on a rather political subject, the film doesn’t express political views at all. No sides appeared to be discussed in the ninety three minutes.
The film was very clearly addressing the issues surrounding racism, and how it has not gone away despite the progression that has been made since the 1960s. This documentary was more realistic in the fact that it wasn’t so argumentative, it just got straight to the issue.
Baldwin stated that not many civil rights activists lived past 40 years old, which was true in the case of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers – who were all killed before they were 40.
It was fascinating to hear the point of view of a civil rights activist who lived to tell what had happened during his experiences with these major historical figures.
Once the film had ended, it was followed up by a forty minute questionnaire with David Witzling, Ph.D., of the English department and Jason Wyman, Ph.D., of the religious studies department. Students and professors shared their thoughts on what the film was expressing, as well as the modern day experiences they’ve seen with racism.
“Many people view Obama as a mark of change, so we figured racism is no longer an issue and we are in a post racial society,” a student had responded after Witzling asked why people think racism isn’t as much of an issue today.
Wyman turned the discussion around and started asking about the religious views that play a role in racism today.
“He stopped being a Christian after he experienced what he thought was the moral bankruptcy in what the church was,” said Wyman as he explained Baldwin’s viewpoints through the religious scholar perspective.
He also stated how Baldwin’s main goal was not to teach black people to hate white people, which was why he wasn’t particularly inspired by his father’s preaching or Malcolm X’s view of Islam.
The conversation between these professors and students then led to discussions on our justice system, racial profiling, and the “new Jim Crow” which has become a normal topic amongst the milennial generation.
Wyman then brought up a point that slavery isn’t actually illegal in the United States.
“There’s an exception in the 13th amendment you can legally hold a slave if they are convicted of a felony,” Wyman had stated, arguing that we now have a new form of slavery whether we have seen it or not.
There then came a discussion on how protesting was the only way to get points across during this time period.
A student in attendance said in response a question on fear of protest, “people have been comparing the black panther party to the KKK. There’s a certain fear in the black community in this country.”
Afridi closed the conversation by saying that young German students to this day are taught to take ethical responsibility for their history.
“There’s a certain kind of insistence our nation has to do to take responsibility in what we have done. We own up to our racism in our nation. This movie isn’t talking about black people, it’s talking about whiteness. If we can’t talk about it, we will continue to live with guilt. The reason they explain to German students the cause of the Holocaust is to show that something this terrible will never happen again.”