I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (2016, directed by Raoul Peck, 95 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It looks like President Trump is going to follow the recent tradition and forgo a State of the Union speech as his first term begins, but with an eerie ambiance of resurrection, Raoul Peck has brought to life the fiery spirit of the late writer/intellectual James Baldwin to deliver the address. Hearing that Baldwin is at the center of the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro might lead you to expect your basic talking heads interviews about the man life and work. Instead, the film is a visual essay about the African American social critic’s lifelong subject, the United States’ long and unresolved relationship with race in this country.
The film is built around the opening 30 pages of an unpublished manuscript of the writer’s personal reflections on three civil rights martyrs that Baldwin knew personally Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. While the battles of the 60s civil rights era give a framework to the conversation, it’s Baldwin analysis and observations about race, and the questions that linger, that make the film seem so urgently of our times.
Stitched together from a number of Baldwin’s writings and read by a sober Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s film gets to the ugly heart of racism in America, specifically why was the category of a sub-human homo sapien, “The Nigger” was ever invented? And doesn’t it’s creation say more about the creator than the people labeled by the term?
Jackson imbues what gravitas he can to Baldwin’s words, but Baldwin himself, seen on Dick Cavett’s talk show and in other ’60s TV and speaking appearances, is truly mesmerizing as only those speaking about freedom and injustice in the prophetic voice can be. A dramatic speaker with a continental accent that did nor betray his Harlem roots, Baldwin’s pregnant pauses followed by flowing language and ideas that strike like lightning, work together to push white audiences to consider how even good liberals have rested too comfortably with racist societal institutions that dole out unfairness by design.
But Baldwin is not just a speechmaker, he’s a poet and novelist too. Sometimes it’s the film’s quiet moments that impact, like when he shares the experience he had as a young man, knowing that his white girlfriend was safer walking alone across the city at night than with him. They’d leave the nightclub five minutes apart and stand silently next to each other on the subway platform, a galling example of how the political can be personal in the most intimate of ways.
I was left with a bit of nostalgia for the late sixties, not for the music or my lost youth but for a time when James Baldwin and his ideas were given a full hearing on prime time television in a time when that might’ve meant a third of the eyeballs watching TV were tuned in. Baldwin’s name and ideas have been sadly absent in conversation in recent years and a full-blown career-spanning documentary would be welcome. What is front in center in I Am Not your Negro is Baldwin’s scathing indictment of our national injustices and his case so undeniable that it easy sustains the galvanizing feature by itself.