The title of Raoul Peck’s fine documentary contains just the right note of provocation and of rebuttal to the patronising aspects of a racially-divided America. It centres upon the work of the novelist and writer James Baldwin who died in his sixties back in 1987. What is so shocking, and Peck knows this only too well, is that the film’s themes, and Baldwin’s stance, are still so relevant and contemporary. It reminds one a little of a recent much-discussed book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. Peck uses Baldwin’s unmistakable clarity of thought to have one last tilt at the racial antagonism that is still the stain on the whole American project.
Baldwin, who grew up in a very large family in Harlem in the 1930s was both gay and black and he was so disgusted by some aspects of his home country that he went to live in Paris. He remained connected to the black struggles and was a friend of three important black intellectuals and leaders. These were; Medgar Evers (who headed up the moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The film, which is based on Baldwin’s partially unpublished recollections, deals with the ideas and lives of these three men. He does not simply idolise these men but he gives them and their ideas the critical seriousness they deserve.
As noted, Peck doesn’t find it hard to intersperse footage from more recent times that illustrate the continuing racial problems. The Rodney King beating for example, used with deadly economy here, is still unwatchably brutal. And, as we know, from such recent events as those in Ferguson Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to resonate and motivate.
If all this sounds merely grim, or like a history lesson lecture that people would shy away from, then that would be to do the film a profound miscarriage of justice. Baldwin (who appears in sparkling form in 1960s televised debates at the Cambridge Union) is always an engaging voice and presence. The narration of his prose by Samuel L Jackson is also beautifully done. It is tragic that there hasn’t been more progress but this film is more than just a howl in the wilderness it is a finely constructed piece of filmmaking and a riveting watch in its own right.
Filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film, I Am Not Your Negro, is an astonishingly powerful and profoundly affecting documentary that traces the political and social struggles experienced by African Americans throughout the past century. It focuses exclusively on the writings of intellectual and activist James Baldwin and is entirely narrated in Baldwin’s words, as voiced reverentially by Samuel L. Jackson.
James Arthur “Jimmy” Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. Baldwin was a contemporary of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Following their assassinations during the tumultuous 1960s, as well as that of Medgar Evers – also a Civil Rights’ activist – Baldwin embarked upon a book that he hoped would chart the struggles of himself, these leaders and his people. He wrote about the urgency to “undertake a journey… that I always knew I would have to make.” In letters to a potential publisher he writes, “I want these lives to bang against each other and reveal each other as, in truth, they did.”
Baldwin started the book in 1979, aged 55, but only 30 pages were completed. His unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, has now been expanded upon and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.
In it, Peck fills in a lot of the book’s missing (unwritten) substance with archival footage that includes images and television footage of Baldwin delivering on-camera interviews or speeches. Intercut with Baldwin’s text are important scenes from history, such as the fractious attempts to end segregation in the face of white opposition. Later we see familiar scenes of protests and riots as black Americans became more vociferous in their opposition to systemic and historic oppression. Significantly, Peck brings his unflinching examination of the struggle right into the present day #BlackLivesMatter movement, at one point presenting a grim roll call of recent people – from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown – to have died at the hands of police or racists.
Many of the images are disturbing to view. Peck sometimes alleviates the commonplace horror with evocative and impressionistic sequences of gorgeously filmed landscape imagery, accompanied by a wistful and dreamy score. (Music is by Alexei Aigui, while three DoPs are listed in the credits.)
One of the most fascinating aspects of this historical artifact is the way the documentary illuminates the diametrically opposed viewpoints of Malcolm X – “Action! By any means necessary,” – with Martin Luther King Jr.’s plea for non-violent resistance, and how each man’s views ultimately converged as the Civil Rights movement wore on.
I Am Not Your Negro is such a meaty and substantial film, it’s difficult to digest. It will bear repeated viewings.