“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story”
I Am Not Your Negro is directed by Raoul Peck, and told in the words of James Baldwin to explore the image and nature of Black Americans in a contemporary setting. Peck draws from the notes of Baldwin’s unfinished project Remember this House, where the author recorded his thoughts on the same subject matter, peppered by recollections of the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. The documentary is Peck’s attempt to bring Baldwin’s sweeping, panoptic vision to life in film, which is rendered with an even more powerful sting in the wake of Black Lives Matter, the Trump administration, and the events at Charlottesville. From start to finish, the film is a confronting howl into the great void that has been left in America’s lack of confrontation with its own dark history.
“All your buried corpses are now beginning to speak”
Negro is quite unlike many documentary movies, instead somewhere between the archival assembly style of Bill Morrison and the reflexive metatextuality of William Greaves. The words of Baldwin, spoken perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson, are woven consistently well alongside the images, videos, music, and transitions that Peck creates. At times, the suitability of Baldwin’s words to Peck’s film is so perfect it feels as though the two are writing in the same room. Peck clearly admires Baldwin’s work, but carves out his own voice and commentary alongside it, as he boldly opens the great Book of America and shows us its pages stained with tears and blood. Baldwin was a formidable cultural critic who touched upon pop culture, history, current events, and fine art, and the film’s most powerful moments are when it takes the same approach. It becomes disquietingly and angrily obvious how entrenched cultural understandings of a constructed identity for African-Americans have become, and further, how they have had no agency in the manipulation of their image.
“Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen?”
The documentary as mentioned, is a court case of a film that throws all its evidence onto the screen for the audience to see. However, this style does not always make for a continuity in its message, and it is at times muddled in its structural choices. Split into five parts, while simultaneously examining its content through the deaths of three men, while simultaneously exploring the life of Baldwin: The film doesn’t always manage to stay focussed on its core message, or the realisation of Baldwin’s vision, and this unfortunately dilutes its substantial and important ideas. It is difficult to follow at times, occasionally meandering around certain quotes without ever shaping them to add to its message. Perhaps most disappointingly, for those who don’t know much about Baldwin, the film never conclusively connects its content and story to the man himself, nor satisfyingly to King, X, or Evers. However, when it works, it works fantastically, and there are so many more transcendant moments in the realisation of Peck and Baldwin’s ideas then there are missteps, and the ability to provide these breakthrough points throughout the film renders it ever more powerful in its communication.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed till it is faced”
I Am Not Your Negro could not come at a more important time in history, as it jolts its audience into realising, or confirming, a startling and rarely discussed reality. In the wake of frightening events for the safety of African-Americans, and POC internationally, Peck has crafted a film of urgency and potency. When we see protestors of the 1960s holding up Nazi symbolism and white supremacist signs, and reconcile that with what is happening today, Baldwin’s words are wholly prophetic in their accuracy and clarity. If there were more films widely distributed that were as transcendent as I Am Not Your Negro, I wonder if these discussions would still need to be had.