“I Am Not Your Negro,” a meditation on race in America and a celebration of the intellect and moral urgency of James Baldwin, has established itself as one of the biggest documentary hits of the Oscar season. The non-fiction film has made nearly $2 million since opening in February and Magnolia, the indie distributor behind the documentary, believes it will end its run with more than $5 million in ticket sales. That would make it the highest-grossing non-fiction release in Magnolia’s history, bypassing “Food, Inc.,” which netted north of $4 million. It’s also the top ticket seller among this year’s best documentary contenders.
“It’s a singular film that’s very much in the zeitgeist,” said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia. “It’s very honest about issues that people are concerned about now. It talks about the feeling of being marginalized and speaks to being left out of the power elite.”
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Bowles said that he hopes “I Am Not Your Negro” will introduce a new generation of readers to the writings of Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights advocate. His work includes “The Fire Next Time,” an examination of fraying relations between the white and black communities, and “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” a heavily auto-biographical look at his life growing up in Harlem. “I Am Not Your Negro” was directed by Raoul Peck, a Haitian filmmaker and political activist who went through Baldwin’s archives and unearthed a 30-page proposal that outlined a proposed biography of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — three Civil Rights leaders who were assassinated and whose deaths weighed heavily on the writer. These killings form the spine for a larger examination of the turmoil and divisions that roiled the 1960’s.
Critics have embraced the picture, with Variety’s Owen Gleiberman writing that the film takes viewers “thrillingly close to [Baldwin’s] existential perception of the hidden meaning of race in America,” and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott praising the picture for “…drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.” The reviews have helped the picture, but the film has also been lifted up by Magnolia’s efforts to extend the conversation surrounding Baldwin and his legacy.
To that end, Magnolia has partnered with school groups to organize showings of the film, and put together a screening at the Harlem Renaissance School, which Baldwin attended. The studio has also hosted showings with question and answer periods that featured panelists like Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s niece and an author in her own right, filmmaker Shola Lynch, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. The studio will continue to expand the film’s theatrical footprint, moving it from 115 venues to more than 200 locations this weekend.
Bowles believes that the debate surrounding police shootings of black citizens and mass incarceration is renewing interest in Baldwin’s work and the simmering discontent and festering social and political inequity he so eloquently elucidated. It’s also finding a receptive audience at a time when the black community finds itself at odds with President Donald Trump.
“There’s a direct such a harshness and direct assault on basic humanity that we’ve been witnessing lately that it’s very encouraging to see the film embraced,” said Bowles. “It’s a film that can make you look outside your own life at people who may not be like you, so you understand them better.”