We’ll never know how James Baldwin would have finished his personal account of the assassinations of 1960s Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, his close friends.

But we do have filmmaker Raoul Peck’s vision of Baldwin’s work in a unique collaborative process that produced “I Am Not Your Negro,” a radical look at race in America, one that questions the very definition of what the country stands for.

The subject of this month’s Salem Progressive Film Series, “I Am Not Your Negro” will air during Black History Month.

It comes at a time of political unrest, social division, and the specter of racism in poverty, education, immigrant rights struggles and the criminal justice system.

Film series board member Derek Olson said he sought to have the film shown as a way to examine and challenge perspectives of Civil Rights history and its leaders, plus conditions for communities of color.

“This film is not only a historical look at the struggle for civil rights, but (it)  also provides us an opportunity to challenge the rose-tinted view that many white American have regarding the Civil Rights Movement,”

He added that many whites point to the achievements of the 60s as the apparent end of institutional racism. But, a thoughtful look at current conditions reveals that today’s laws and criminal justice systems target communities of color with purpose and disheartening precision.

“Ultimately, I want our (predominately white) community to try and see the world through the eyes of our sisters and brothers from communities of color, and to truly understand that our privilege comes at their expense,” Olson said.

Following the film, two speakers will address the audience. One is Erious Johnson, Chief Legislative Policy Director for Rep. Janelle Bynum, and former Director of Civil Rights for the Oregon Attorney General, the first in the state’s history. An attorney, Johnson is also a seasoned trainer and lecturer. The other speaker is Cal Henry, President of the Oregon Assembly for Black Americans.

Johnson’s talk will focus on “Black films that affected me, shaped me, and informed my social conscience. I call them Black films because they showcase Black actors in Black situations familiar to me as a Black man. The gist of my talk is if I could put on my own film festival, what films would I show and why.”

Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro” Baldwin’s elegant, weary and rage-filled voice speaks with clarity, insisting that uncomfortable truths be faced.

It begins with the author’s return to the United States after nearly a decade in France. He returns home after seeing a photograph of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts and the violent white mob that surrounds her as she enters the previously segregated Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It made me furious, it filled me with both hatred and pity, and it filled me with shame. Some one of us should have been there with her,” Baldwin says in the movie.

In recounting the deaths of Evers, Malcolm X and King, the film delves deeper than a historical recount. It examines the underpinnings of racism and how they are upheld by those in power, and through Hollywood stereotypes.

As Baldwin says in the film, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It’s not a pretty story.”

Though Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago, his words echo loudly as Peck shows images of the #BlackLivesMatter struggles. Baldwin’s searing words over the senseless killings of black youth are prophetic in today’s context of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

Peck said ultimately not much has change, and Johnson said one form of oppression has been replaced with another. “This country was built on slavery, which has been minimized to an oppressive condition that can be overcome and forgotten.  

“It is often overlooked that slavery was codified by our Constitution.  Then preserved and solidified by Black Codes and Jim Crow.  Laws established and enforced by governmental entities—judges, courts, governors, mayors, legislators, sheriffs and police—meant to serve and protect.  It is no wonder that chain gangs and lynchings have been replaced by the school-to-prison pipeline and police shootings.”

One goal of the series is to encourage people to take action. Johnson encouraged people to “take whatever skill, gift, interest you have and use it for change.”


I Am Not Your Negro

Salem Progressive Film Series

Guest speakers & audience discussion follow,

Tuesday, February 20, 7:00 pm

The Grand Theater

191 High St. NE, Salem

(503) 881-5305