I Am Not Your Negro
by George Wolf
It may be driven by content decades old, but I Am Not Your Negro wastes no time in driving home its urgency.
As author James Baldwin tells Dick Cavett why he doesn’t view 1968 as a year of “progress for Negroes,” disturbing images of recent conflicts roll in succession, connecting the two eras with gut-wrenching irony.
Director Raoul Peck weaves notes from Baldwin’s unfinished 1979 novel Remember This House, along with interview and archival footage, to give new life to Baldwin’s assertion that the history of Negroes in American tells the story of America itself.
“It is not pretty.”
At its very core, the film is a reminder of Baldwin’s intellect and clarity of thought. From page to interview to personal letter to public debate, Baldwin had an innate ability to communicate his ideas with laser focus and biting precision. And Peck (Sometimes in April) finds an effective balance between letting the historical Baldwin (who died in 1987) speak for himself, and entrusting a famous voice to speak for him.
Samuel L Jackson recites Baldwin’s prose, wisely trading the voice that is so recognizable for a hushed delivery that lends gravity to each carefully chosen word. There is a furious anger here, but Jackson’s trademark boom would have been both out of character and a needless distraction. In its place is a perfect tone of reverence and wisdom that commands attention as effectively as any of Jackson’s fiery movie monologues.
As Baldwin speaks of his own time, there’s no doubt he is also speaking directly to ours. It is no coincidence that the last twelve months have given us three of the most compelling documentaries on racial strife we have seen in years. 13th, OJ: Made in America and I Am Not Your Negro (all Oscar-nominated this year) are all worthy of any course in American history, each dissecting our deeply troubled times from unique perspectives.
If there is any point that shows the age of Baldwin’s original essays – and make no mistake, the depth of their relevance is often stunning – it is the lack of any substantial female perspective beyond that of suffering wives. Though the male-centric view is more understandable when considering Baldwin’s original book idea was based on the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it remains noticeable.
But through Peck and Jackson, an unforgettable voice from the past becomes an indispensable storyteller for today. I Am Not Your Negro tells that story.
No, it is not pretty, but it demands to be seen.