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I Am Not Your Negro Discussion Guide
About the Film
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his new endeavor: the writing of
his final book, Remember This House, recounting the lives and successive assassinations of his friends
Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin was not able to complete the book before
his death, and the unfinished manuscript was entrusted to director Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Sometimes in
April, Moloch Tropical, Murder in Pacot) by the writer’s estate.
Built exclusively around Baldwin’s words, Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro delves into the complex legacy of
three lives (and deaths) that permanently marked the American social and political landscape. Framing
the unfinished work as a radical narration about race in America, Peck matches Baldwin’s lyrical rhetoric
with rich archival footage of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and connects these historical
struggles for justice and equality to the present-day movements that have taken shape in response to
the killings of young African-American men including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, and Amir
Exploring what it means to be Black in America today, Peck reflects on the legacy of racial violence that
still permeates the country. In Baldwin’s words, “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without
becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage: you
never had to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not
everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” By revealing the
deep connections between past and present injustice, I Am Not Your Negro weaves an epic narrative
about America’s irrational relationship with skin color – a relationship that would be absurd were it not
About the History
James Baldwin the grandson of a slave was born in Harlem in 1924 and became an American
novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and leader in the civil rights movement. The oldest of nine children,
he grew up in poverty. After working for the railroad starting at age 18, Baldwin moved to Greenwich
Village, where he worked as a freelance writer. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist,
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Richard Wright who helped him secure a grant so he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age
24, Baldwin moved to Paris. In the early 1960s, Baldwin returned to the US to take part in the civil rights
movement. During this time he traveled throughout the south, writing about all that he witnessed. For
many, Baldwin became one of the first and most important – voices for civil rights. After the
assassinations of too many of his close friends in the movement, Baldwin moved back to France, where
died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63.
James Baldwin had many famous friends in political, entertainment, and intellectual circles, including
Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malclom X, Bob Dylan and Lorraine Hansberry. I Am
Not Your Negro begins in June, 1979, when James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent explaining
his intention to write a new book that tells his story of America through the lives of three of his
murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In this book, Baldwin wanted,
in his own words, these three lives to bang against and reveal each other as in truth they did, and use
their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed
them, and for whom they gave their lives. He never got past an original truncated manuscript of 30
pages, but in that short document, Baldwin was able to explore, with cutting clarity, their complex and
painful journey, and the many intertwining, ambiguous, toxic, and sometimes conflicting themes that
affected and still affect the development of both the individual and society at large in the United
States of America.
Guidelines for Viewing in the Theatre
To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the
land of the free. This is only, very unwillingly and sporadically, the home of the brave. James Baldwin
spoke these words over 50 years ago as he watched the corpses of [his] brothers and sisters piling up
around [him] in their fight for equal rights. And yet his words are as relevant today as ever. I Am Not
Your Negro is not only a documentation of the American civil rights movement of the mid to late 1960s,
it is a critique of American society today. By viewing contemporary footage paired with words penned
over 50 years ago, we can only admit to how much remains to be done in the struggle for equality and
freedom – independent of race in the United States of America.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. This film
provides an eloquent opportunity to face the truths from our nations history and our present, in order
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to facilitate real and sustainable change. You can be a part of the change you wish to see by organizing
a group to go to the theater to see I Am Not Your Negro. Go as a family, or bring your colleagues,
classmates, students and friends together to view the film, talk about the issues and feelings it raises,
and develop an action plan to turn those responses into qualitative change. Below is a step-by-step
guide to help you plan a thoughtful and productive trip to the theater with your family and friends to
see I Am Not Your Negro.
Before You Arrive at the Theater
Every moment of I Am Not Your Negro is packed with information, references, and conversation
prompts both aural and visual. To truly appreciate all the insights the film communicates, it is best to
come to the film in a thoughtful manner, and allow yourself time to process what youve seen. Make
sure you have time before and after the film starts to talk with your companions about your experience.
Create a Safe Viewing Space
I Am Not Your Negro is a film that deals with a very dense, nuanced, and difficult subject, and in order to
create the most productive outcome, viewers need to feel safe expressing their feelings and responses.
The most important thing is to ensure that everyone in your party feels welcome and safe, so that they
are open to viewing and discussing this crucial content. Refer to the Things to Consider Before
Watching I Am Not Your Negro section of this guide for topics and questions to help frame the viewing
experience and to help navigate both the film, and responses to it.
Check in with Yourself and Your Companions Before the Film Rolls
This films subject matter is an important and contentious aspect of our countrys history. Seeing it on
the big screen with family and friends is a great way to start a dialogue about this emotionally charged,
and extremely topical chapter. When viewing in a theater, try to pay attention to the details that add
relevance to the story: the relationship between the voiceover and the footage that is used, the
editorial choices, the film references, the music, the lighting, and the visual point of view. Also pay
attention to your own physiological responses. Oftentimes our deepest insights come when we can
focus on our own, personal, holistic and emotional experiences of the film. What aspects of the film
make you most uncomfortable? Dont turn away from these moments; rather, observe how the images,
ideas, conversations and characters affect your own sense of anger, fear, well-being, anxiety, and calm.
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As much as you can, while still being present, make note of these details, so you can discuss them with
your companions after the film ends.
The film itself is just about an hour and a half, and in order to really unpack all the issues the film raises,
you should allow for a minimum of an hour after the film to debrief with your friends and family.
Consider inviting everyone back to your home for snacks, and to talk. Or walk to a nearby caf where
you can sit with a cup of coffee or tea and chat. Prior to your evening, you might refer to the Things to
Consider After Watching I Am Not Your Negro and the Questions for Further Discussion sections of this
guide for questions and topics that can help start a fruitful dialogue.
This film will likely bring up a lot of questions and reactions, many of which will not get resolved the
night of your outing. Make time in the coming weeks to revisit the conversation. Maintain that safe
space and encourage your friends and family to continue the discussion, dialogue and thinking. Think
about the ways that you will continue to work towards the ideals and goals the film brought up even
after the movie ends. Refer to the Extension Activities section of this guide for ways to get involved.
Choose a Date
I Am Not Your Negro will be in theatres everywhere beginning February 3, 2017. As you have heard time
and again, opening weekend is the most important time for a film, and especially a film with a topic as
sensitive as this one. If you are able, plan your date and location well in advance. When picking the
date and time for your viewing, consider holidays and local events, as well as the general preferences of
your invitees. A weeknight evening is often a good time to host an adults-only event, as it allows
professionals to come straight from work and does not conflict with major weekend plans. If you are
choosing between days, do not hesitate to ask an expert, such as an administrator at your church or
synagogue, about when theyve had the most success with attendance.
and now that the basics are decided, you can get to planning your event!
2-4 Weeks Prior
Put together your invitation list.
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Select a convenient location and time for your in-theatre viewing. Depending on the size of your
group, many theatres may offer a group discount rate for your tickets as well as a private auditorium
for larger groups. Contact your local theatre in advance for more information.
Design and email or text your invitation. Make sure your invitation outlines all the details of your
event: including the name of the film, and a description of the activities you have planned (panel
discussion, moderated Q&A, open group dialogue, small group activities, dinner, etc.). If you are
planning to gather at a restaurant following your in-theatre viewing, select a convenient location
and make a reservation and include this information in your invitation. If you are planning a potluck
or bring-your-own event, at a private location following the in-theatre viewing, make sure you detail
this expectation in your invitation as well.
2 Weeks Prior
Plan the food and drinks you will serve. Will you serve drinks and light snacks? A full buffet meal?
Do you need to rent tables, chairs, plates, glasses, and utensils, or purchase disposable ones?
Prepare an agenda for your event. This can be as formal or as informal as you wish, but you should
decide on the timing for arrivals, introductions, film start, and starting the post-film discussion or
supplemental activities. This guide provides questions and discussion prompts for creating a unique,
1 Week Prior
Send out a reminder to those guests who have RSVPd yes, or have not RSVPd at all.
Consider providing RSVPd guests with links to the films website, the films official Facebook, or
Twitter to garner involvement in the issues, and get your guests excited about your event.
3 Days Prior
Purchase the necessary food, drinks, and other event supplies if you are hosting a discussion at a
private location following the in-theatre viewing. If you are going to a local restaurant after, confirm
your restaurant reservation and the final number of attendees.
Confirm with your invited guests one more time, and consider resending links to any late RSVPs.
Prepare and practice an introduction to the film and a welcome to your event.
The Day of the Event
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Dont forget your agenda. Make the most out of your time by following the agenda you created. If
your group is attending a showing with a general audience, and not your own private auditorium at
the theatre, gather your guests in the lobby of the theatre for a brief introduction. Introduce the
film and explain why you are bringing it to the group. Before the film starts, remind your guests that
there will be a short discussion, panel discussion, or activities afterwards.
The Day After
Send a thank-you to all your guests and encourage them to continue the discussion and/or the
action plan that was started at your event.
Think about the ways that you will continue to work towards the ideals and goals the film brought
up for you even after the movie ends. Refer to the Extension Activities section of this guide for
ways to get involved.
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Things to Consider Before Watching I Am Not Your Negro
This film explores historical, contemporary, and artistic themes relating to race and culture in the United
States. While much of the film deals with events that took place half a century ago, all of it is still very
relevant to this day. It is this relevance this lack of societal evolution that audiences should examine
closely, in order to fight against our cultural inertia. Take a moment to think about one or all of the
following themes. Consider your relationship to these themes. What opinions or thoughts do you have
on these subjects already? Considering these topics, and your personal relationship to them before you
view the film, will allow for higher level thinking during the viewing as well as more productive dialogue
What is the legacy of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow in our culture? How do these historical
institutions affect contemporary society?
What do you know about the original American Civil Rights movement? What do you know
about that movements leaders, in particular, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcom
How is your perception of the world influenced by what you see represented on television, in
music, or in movies? How are these representations different, or similar, to your own life?
In your opinion, why do you think some people hate other people? Where does this feeling of
Can you think of a character in a movie or a popular film that looks like, lives like, and/ or acts
like you and your family? If so, who are these characters, and how do they make you feel? If
not, how does this lack of representation make you feel?
What is a hero? Who are your heroes?
What defines a journey? Whats the difference between a journey and a trip? Have you ever
been on a journey?
Are you affiliated with a political, social, or religious group? If so, describe it. If not, is there a
What is the American Dream?
What is a song or a musical artist that speaks for your generation, or for the times?
What is race?
All of the leaders associated with the civil rights movement from Martin Luther King, Jr. to
Robert Kennedy were murdered. Consider the impact that this had on the movement and
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on society at large. What message did this send to the American people about civil rights in this
What role does violence play in American history? In world history? When is violence perceived
as acceptable? When is it not?
Things to Consider After Watching I Am Not Your Negro
This film can be appreciated on many levels: as a work of art, as an interpretation of a complex and
under-documented history, or as a call to action, a story whose message is almost as painfully relevant
today as it was in its own time. Use the following discussion starters to broaden your thinking about the
film and the issues it depicts.
Media Literacy/ Film Studies
What did you notice about the title treatments throughout? How does the art direction in the
titles mirror the message of the film?
Throughout the film, there are moments where seemingly random visuals appear on screen.
For instance, in the sun, beautiful pastorals and sunsets at one point
there is footage of a rocket going into outer space. Why do you think the filmmaker made this
artistic choice? What might these different images represent in the context of this film?
There are title cards that come up periodically throughout the film. They read: Paying My
Dues; Heroes; Witness; Purity; Selling the Negro; and I am not a Nigger. Consider
how these titles relate to the sections of the film. Is there a direct correlation, or a symbolic
one, between the content explored in these sections and the title cards?
The Civil Rights Movement and Race Relations in America
How do the lives of Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin bang against and reveal each other in this
film? What do the portrayals of these men reveal about the people who loved and betrayed
How did the film portray the struggle for school integration the importance of school and
access to books and learning as well as the vitriol surrounding the effort to integrate?
What impact did the early representation of blacks in film have on Baldwin, specifically, Stepin
Fetchit, Willie Best, Uncle Tom, and Clinton Rosemund?
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The film touches multiple times on the idea that African-Americans are not entitled to claim part
of the society that they helped build. At one point Baldwin is quoted I am not a ward of
America. I am not an object of missionary charity. Im one of the people who built this
country. Consider this statement and evaluate in within the context of the civil rights
movement then and now.
There were many references to contemporary society throughout the film: a montage of young
African Americans who have been killed in the past 10 years (Tamir Rice, Darius Simmons,
Trayvon Martin, and others), as well as footage of riots in Los Angeles, Ferguson, and other
cities. Why did the filmmakers choose to include these references, and how did they impact you
as a viewer?
Do you think the following statement is accurate? Explain your reasoning. You cannot lynch
me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.
Literature, Art and Culture
What are the differences between ones public persona and their private self? Why is this so?
How does contemporary Hollywood culture affect the attitudes and behaviors of society at
Explore the significance of Lorraine Hansberry and her play, A Raisin in the Sun, within the
narrative arc of this film, in American history and culture, and in Baldwins life.
What significance does Baldwin give to the historical image of black slaves singing songs on the
levee? What does he mean when he says They require a song to justify my captivity and to
justify their own.
Analyze the melody and lyrics to Bob Dylans song Pawn in their Game. Explore the lyrics as a
poem what do his words say about the society they came from? What is Dylan trying to
import with this song?
Questions for Further Discussion
Use the following questions to reflect on, and tease apart some of your responses to the film. These
prompts could be used to start a family conversation, a community dialogue, or for journaling, to
process the emotions and implications that this film brings.
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The film begins with Baldwin saying a journey is called that because you cannot know what you
will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to
you. Explore the literary meaning of journey within the context of this film. What are some of
the various literal and figurative journeys that are depicted in the film?
In the film, Baldwin argues that any conversation about the Negro in America is really simply a
conversation about America, and that attempting to silo race not only hinders us from
improving race relations, but also undermines growth for our society as a whole. How does this
theory relate to the contemporary conversation about race in America?
What does it mean to be a witness? How is the role of witness in history different from the
roles of others such as perpetrators, victims, bystanders or allies? What are the
responsibilities of a witness, and why is it important that there be witnesses?
What was the significance of including Baldwins FBI file?
At one point in the film, there was an audio montage of voices (some very recognizable) saying
Im sorry. What was the purpose and the impact of this moment in the film, on both the
narrative arc, and on you as a viewer?
Baldwin notes that MLK and Malcolm X were two men poles apart, driven closer together. By
the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said
indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolms burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had
begun to see and for which he paid with his life, and that Malcolm was one of the people that
Martin saw on the mountaintop. These two men are often represented as opposites, or even
enemies, in popular culture. How does Baldwins depiction differ? Why is this difference
Baldwin loosely defines segregation as apathy plus ignorance. Explain what this means using
real-life examples as well as paraphrases from Baldwins words.
At one point Baldwin notes the difference between a white man with a gun (a romantic
revolutionary, or an eccentric patriot) and a black man with a gun (a raving maniac). What
examples of this was Baldwin referring to? What examples of this can you find in contemporary
What does Baldwin mean when he uses the phrase emotional poverty?
Analyze the following quote: I can’t be pessimistic because I am alive. To be a pessimist means
that you treat human life as an academic matter. So I am forced to be an optimist.
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Discuss, explore, and analyze the following quote from James Baldwin: It is entirely up to the
American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger
on whom theyve relied for so long. What white people have to do is to try to find out find out
in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Cause Im not a
nigger, Im a man. But if you think Im a nigger then you need it so the question the white
population has to ask themselves is — if Im not the nigger here and you, the white people,
invented it, then you have to figure out why. The future of this country relies on that. On
whether or not I was able to ask that question.
Continue the journey from audience to agent of change by engaging with a nonprofit or social
movement that works to eradicate bigotry, hate crimes, and institutionalized bias.
Learn more about the legacy of bias in this country through the important work of the
Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to fight hate and bigotry and to seek justice
for the most vulnerable members of our society. Go to www.splc.org to find out more.
Black Lives Matter has become one of the most respected voices in what is now known as the
new civil rights movement. Go to www.blacklivesmatter.com/find-chapters/, find a local
Black Lives Matter chapter, and get involved in the movement.
The NAACP, the worlds largest grassroots-based civil rights organization, was founded in 1909
with the mission to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of
all persons and to . Support their work in civic
engagement, environmental justice, criminal justice, health and more by becoming involved in
your local chapter. Learn more here: http://www.naacp.org/find-local-unit/
The National Urban League has many programs to protect civil rights and fight racism in
Americas cities. Check out their national and local initiatives and learn how to get involved
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
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Facing History and Ourselves
Color of Change
The King Center
National Visionary Leadership Project
National Urban League
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