I Am Not Your Negro is a film that I’ve written about, and discussed, at great length. To say that I am a fan of James Baldwin would be an understatement. I can’t begin to explain just how much his writings and his lectures guided me and kept me steady in fragile times. Whenever I’ve questioned the direction of my life, or felt as if I had come to a crossroad of sorts, the answer always laid in a Baldwin book. Whether it be one of his novels or an essay, I have always felt that he was communicating something to me. Something that became clearer and clearer with each piece I read. And so I Am Not Your Negro is a special film for me. It’s the first film that I feel I had the scoop on. I was lucky enough to see it in its festival circuit-and I mean really reaching into my contacts to get my hands on two tickets for the US premiere. I was genuinely happy when it got an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It was grueling to have to wait 4 months to see it again in its theatrical run, and since it released on February 3rd, I’ve seen it twice. So, altogether, I’ve seen this film three times. On the third, but in no way the last time, I decided to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse.
The Alamo Drafthouse is an interesting theater experience. It’s interesting because, as a lover of cinema, I can admit that it probably shouldn’t work, but somehow, it does. It mixes the gimmick with a true love for the art-form. For example, waiters do their best to stay quiet and out of sight when taking your order, tables between each seat come with a dull light underneath so you’re never in total darkness when trying to eat your food. But after the trailers end the theater becomes a no-talk/no-text zone. Patrons are not even allowed to enter the theater after the film has started. So, for all the add-ons that may detract a film lover like me (clanging plates, the waiters, lack of total darkness), I can’t help but love Alamo Drafthouse’s commitment to go the extra mile in creating a space conducive to watching films. That’s a difficult task given what the Alamo seeks to offer, but so far, it’s working for them. Not to mention the fact that the food is genuinely good. I can admit that you probably want to save your Alamo Drafthouse experience for a film that requires less thought than I Am Not Your Negro, but either way, it is a fine environment to watch a film.
Anyway, I’ve said all that. The film finishes, my friends and I are floored and, after we manage to work up the nerve to leave the theater, we found ourselves outside in a circle discussing the film.
A woman interjects herself into our circle to ask for a cigarette.
I give her one, but she isn’t finished yet. She puts the cigarette in her pocket and asks what film we just came out of. “I Am Not Your Negro” I told her.
She asked, “Did you bawl?”
To which I replied: “It’s my third time seeing the film”. Come to find out, it was her second time. My friends and I are native New Yorkers and we’re all black. The woman was white, and although I can’t possibly know for sure where she’s from, it would come as a great shock to me if I were to find out she was from New York. This is important only because, after a few moments of awkward conversation, she said “okay I have to ask.” Uh oh here it comes was what everyone in my circle began to think. After dancing around it for some time, she finally got to the question.
“I realized, I’ve never hung out with black people… I guess I wanted to ask you guys, do you hang out with white people?”
A silence hung in the air for a moment, and a few awkward looks were exchanged. My friends and I said we did indeed hang out with white people. “So am I just a piece of shit” she asked. “Why am I such a piece of shit?”
“You’re not a piece of shit,” we feebly tried to assure her, but she had already seemed to settle on the fact that she was. Suddenly it was as if we were bearing witness to someone’s inner torment, spilling out of them in front of total strangers. Tears filling her eyes, she fumbled with her words and apologies for never having spent time with black people, as if it really affected us. Shortly, her husband came and told her their car had arrived. She kept going until, again he said, “honey, our car is here.” What a funny way for a story like that to end. As she walked away I jokingly suggested that she ask her Uber driver his name.
“I always do!” she cried.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. But if anything, it’s a testament to the power of film. Some films are so powerful that a person that has supposedly never ‘hung out’ with black people, can feel compelled to walk into a group and start a conversation. And sure, while she might of revealed herself to be incredibly naive, she was also taking a great leap into the unknown, because a film- a 90 minute film- made her question her entire life thus far. It’s a testament not only to the words of Baldwin, and not only the power of film, but a testament to the power of seeing a film in the theater. The images on the screen encompass you amid strangers who you may not communicate with, but are undoubtedly sharing an experience with. It’s that shared experience that makes the theater such hallowed ground for a film lover. And it may just inspire you to reach across the aisle and ask a question you’ve never considered, to a person you’ve never known.