Director: Raoul Peck
Starring: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
In 1979, author, intellectual and activist James Baldwin wrote a thirty page treatment for a book to be called ‘Remember this House.’ It was going to be his personal account, describing his experience of the murders of his three friends and fellow civil rights champions, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. However Baldwin ultimately couldn’t bring himself to write the book and he passed away in 1987 having never returned to it. Using Baldwin’s own words, Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro sets about trying to bring this unrealised work to life.
While Baldwin is the film’s principal character, I Am Not Your Negro is not a biography. Peck does not concern himself with delivering names, dates, milestones and achievements. If you come into this film without a great knowledge of who Baldwin was and what he did (and as a thirty-something Australian I confess to being far from an expert), you are not going to come out of the film with all of those questions answered. But you will come out with the desire to learn more, because what the film does emphatically show you of Baldwin was that he was a towering mind, a great thinker and powerful debater.
While Baldwin was speaking to a 1960s and 1970s audience, Peck seeks to create parallels between the events of then and those of today through the use of more recent footage from the riots in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. These contemporary images give an almost prophetic quality to Baldwin’s words. But rather than being the result any sort of conscious prediction or prognostication, this retained relevance comes from the fact Baldwin is not simply attempting to describe the injustices he sees in the world and demand action. Rather than focusing on the what, he wants to explore the why. Why are things the way they are? What is it about America, he asks, that requires the subjugation of a race? Why does America need there to be a ‘negro,’ an other? He sees the racial injustices in his country as merely symptomatic of much deeper issues, troubling issues that go to the heart of the American concept. “The story of the negro in America is the story of America,” he says. “It is not a pretty story.” It is a challenging line of questioning that will leave you with a lot to think about.
Knowing that it is the great strength of the film, Peck puts Baldwin’s voice front and centre. Through archival footage from his television appearances and public lectures, and a narration drawn from his various essays and writings, Baldwin’s words drive the film to the point that he is credited as its writer. He is an eloquent man, but the power of his words come not simply through the profundity of the intellectual content, but through the complex emotions we can identify swirling beneath them: a barely contained righteous anger, a simultaneous proud defiance and despairing hopelessness.
While it is not something that usually receives attention in a documentary, Samuel L. Jackson is tremendous as the narrator. It is not uncommon for an A-list star to lend their voice to a documentary, but Jackson’s contribution is notable because he actually delivers a performance. Were it not for the end credits you might not even realise it is him. He casts off all of the Samuel L Jackson-ness that we associate with him and, while not attempting an impression, takes on the part of Baldwin. He successfully captures something of the spirit of the writer’s words.
I Am Not Your Negro employs a simple but striking visual style. The majority of the film, including chapter inter-titles, are in black and white, which while being a requirement of much of the archival footage is also thematically appropriate. While the footage that forms the spine of the film comes from an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1968 and a Cambridge Union debate in 1965, Peck also peppers the film with popular culture imagery. Among other things, Baldwin examines what he calls ‘the construction of the American negro’ through Hollywood movies, so we are presented with different historical representations of blackness from advertising, as well as popular television shows and films from Hollywood’s classical era.
James Baldwin was speaking hard, hard truths in the 1960s, and they remain hard truths today. Peck’s masterful documentary is a fitting record of a brilliant mind and significant campaigner, and a harsh and confronting reminder of the many ways in which his message still needs to be heard. Even in the context of the the richness of recent documentary offerings, I Am Not Your Negro is exceptional.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen I Am Not Your Negro? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.