Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Intelligent but sometimes discursive documentary about African-American author James Baldwin.
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Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a tribute to author, essayist and playwright James Baldwin (1932-1987). The writer is best known for Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of his published essays, one of which critiqued Richard Wright’s groundbreaking novel, Native Son (1940). An expatriate for much of his career, Baldwin divided his time between France and the United States, and was an eloquent voice in the struggle for Bback masculine identity.

Peck’s documentary is inspired by Baldwin’s work, including the unpublished “Notes Toward Remember This House.” A 30-page document lent to Peck by the writer’s estate, it is a response to his agent who asked Baldwin to write a book about his friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Samuel L. Jackson lends his incredible baritone to the narration that is drawn entirely from Baldwin’s writing. Jackson does not precisely mimic Baldwin’s speech, but instead delivers a wonderful performance of his own.

Peck, a former minister of culture in his native Haiti, is the writer-director of Lumumba (2000), a celebrated biopic about the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo, yet the filmmaker also possesses excellent journalistic instincts, as evinced in Fatal Assistance (2013), an exposé of the aid debacle that followed Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. In I Am Not Your Negro, Peck begins with television footage of Baldwin that explains the documentary’s title. He then goes on to fashion a portrait that articulates the writer’s assessment of America’s moral poverty, the result of its historical indifference to racial violence. Through still photographs, archival footage and new footage, as well as a skillfully written narrative track, Peck brilliantly illustrates the continuing relevance of Baldwin’s work.

I Am Not Your Negro is characterized by intuitive leaps that connect disparate events in Baldwin’s life and career, yet many sequences ignore chronology. For instance, the filmmaker uses an image from the Ferguson protests of 2014, but in black-and-white rather than in color, with the narration intoning Baldwin’s argument that America suffers from a “death of the heart.” That clever use of black-and-white to evoke newspaper images of racial unrest in the 1960s, coming so quickly after a segment on Malcolm X and Vietnam War-era activist Father Berrigan, produces a sequence that can only be understood by those for whom these events are living history.

Similarly, Peck’s style of free association in I Am Not Your Negro is often expressed in a montage of seemingly unrelated images and text, or a mix of voices, music and narration, with many cuts to sound and image. Despite Peck’s use of intertitles, such as “Paying My Dues” and “Purity,” drawn from Baldwin’s various texts, these thematic divisions in a documentary with no overarching narrative structure sometimes make it difficult to grasp the portent of the author’s rhetoric.

While I Am Not Your Negro is biographical, it also evokes an era when television was a medium for intellectual discourse, when thinkers and activists could lay bare the newly minted host of a talk show, as Baldwin does Dick Cavett for his ignorance of black identity in one of the documentary’s archival clips. While Peck could not have anticipated Donald Trump’s win, the release of his documentary places in stark relief the fact of Americans’ continuing indifference to racism, what Baldwin referred to as our “moral apathy.” Peck’s meticulously researched documentary, with its sources supporting the pointed thesis of Baldwin’s relevancy, is another addition to a recent Baldwin revival that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Baldwin-inspired National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me.

Peck skips a great deal of the controversy that Baldwin stirred among his black contemporaries for his refusal to be categorized, especially as a “Negro writer.” Martin Luther King, Jr. struck Baldwin’s name from the final list of speakers for his 1963 March on Washington, in part because of the writer’s criticism of Christianity, and Eldridge Cleaver skewered Baldwin for his “sycophantic love of whites.” On the other hand, in attempting to explain the scope of Baldwin’s views and the variety of his work, Peck does him justice in I Am Not Your Negro. He represents the writer as he wished to be seen—as an independent thinker, a man whose worldview was shaped by many forces, not solely by the color of his skin.

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