Raul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary is a manifestation of the profound intellect of author and activist James Arthur Baldwin. “I Am Not Your Negro,” is possibly one of the most revelatory, insightful and prescient visual documents on civil rights and race that has ever been committed to screen.
The film is crafted from two primary pieces of source material. The first is a series of letters from Baldwin to his literary agent describing the undertaking his writing process approaching of his book titled “Remember this House.” The second is the 30 page, unfinished manuscript documenting the lives and assassinations of three titanic figures in the American civil rights movement; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
This deeply personal account benefits from Baldwin’s unique insights as their friend. Baldwin reflects on the Civil Rights movement and provides a deep insight into the differing methods and ideologies of Dr. King Jr, Malcolm X and Evers, and articulates how that, as the fight endured throughout, the ethical barriers were torn down and their aligned core values drove them closer together. I believe Baldwin’s turn of phrase was that Martin pushed up Malcolm’s burden. Whatever the load, it doesn’t seem to compare in this reflexive account. The vision is vast and enunciated with a precious precision; but the raw emotion in the delivery of the words carves at you like a monumentally tragic eulogy. In fact, the deeper tragedy is that this vital witness of turbulent times has passed.
While documentary narration often attempts to use the profile and “pedigree” of the performer to add gravitas to the content; Baldwin’s spirit is embodied almost unrecognisably by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s gravelly and deliberate intonation is less an impression and more an embodiment of the melancholy that these words still resonate so strongly with the ongoing struggle. “I Am Not Your Negro” has a static electricity, while you’re watching and realising that you’re witnessing the tendrils of a painful history refusing to relinquish its grip.
Director and documentary craftsman Raoul Peck has used Baldwin’s writing as a compass. The magnet points to an assembly of Baldwin’s public appearances, eloquent and splendidly constructed eviscerations of bigotry, and this melancholic personal wrestle of a manuscript that’s been exhumed. At one point Peck shows portrayals of African American men in a series of films from the 40s, 50s and 60s and overlays it with Baldwin’s reflection on cinema. Baldwin says that cinema was lying about the world he knows, and that no one resembling his father was represented on the cinema screen.
As I reflect on the film, as the Australian Senators are donning Muslim garb for stunt press and to great news grabs that incite racial prejudice; or as Neo-Nazis march through Southern towns like Charlottesville U.S.A; “I Am Not Your Negro” has transformed into a horrific discovery.
This documentary is a maddening reminder that aesthetic progress, and the cycles of incidental self-congratulation have failed to root out generational and institutional racism in the United States (and tangentially - Western civilisation).
“I Am Not Your Negro” is like a documentary premonition. The documentary form has rarely (if ever) been so rich with an incredible account of life and times.
“I Am Not Your Negro” (2016)
Director: Raoul Peck
Writers: James Baldwin (writings), Raoul Peck (scenario)
M | 1h 33min | Documentary | 17 February 2017 (USA)