Filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film, I Am Not Your Negro, is an astonishingly powerful and profoundly affecting documentary that traces the political and social struggles experienced by African Americans throughout the past century. It focusses exclusively on the writings of intellectual and activist James Baldwin and is entirely narrated in Baldwin’s words, as voiced reverentially by Samuel L. Jackson.
James Arthur “Jimmy” Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. Baldwin was a contemporary of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Following their assassinations during the tumultuous 1960s, as well as that of Medgar Evers – also a Civil Rights’ activist – Baldwin embarked upon a book that he hoped would chart the struggles of himself, these leaders and his people. He wrote about the urgency to “undertake a journey… that I always knew I would have to make.” In letters to a potential publisher he writes, “I want these lives to bang against each other and reveal each other as, in truth, they did.”
Baldwin started the book in 1979, aged 55, but only 30 pages were completed. His unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, has now been expanded upon and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.
In it, Peck fills in a lot of the book’s missing (unwritten) substance with archival footage that includes images and television footage of Baldwin delivering on-camera interviews or speeches. Intercut with Baldwin’s text are important scenes from history, such as the fractious attempts to end to segregation in the face of white opposition. Later we see familiar scenes of protests and riots as black Americans became more vociferous in their opposition to systemic and historic oppression. Significantly, Peck brings his unflinching examination the struggle right into the present day of #BlackLivesMatter movement, at one point presenting a grim roll call of recent people – from Travon Martin to Michael Brown – to have died at the hands of cops or racists.
Many of the images are disturbing to view. Peck sometimes alleviates the commonplace horror with evocative and impressionistic sequences of gorgeously filmed landscape imagery, accompanied by a wistful and dreamy score. (Music is by Alexei Aigui while three DoPs are listed in the credits.)
One of the most fascinating aspect of this historical artefact is the way the documentary illuminates the diametrically opposed viewpoints of Malcolm X – “Action! By any means necessary,” – with Martin Luther King Jr.’s plea for non-violent resistance, and how each man’s views ultimately converged as the Civil Rights’ movement wore on.
I Am Not Your Negro is such a meaty and substantial film, it’s difficult to digest. It will bear repeated viewings.
Now available on DVD, Blu-ray & Digital HD.