Novelist, playwright, poet and cultural critic James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent in 1979, describing a book he planned to write, based on his years involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. It was to explore the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He wanted to explore the ways in which these activists’ lives banged against and informed each other. There were only 30 pages of manuscript when Baldwin died in 1987, and now Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has breathed new life into Baldwin’s work in the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Baldwin served as a witness to the civil rights movement, alongside Medgar, Malcolm and Martin, returning to the U.S. from ex-pat life in Paris. He was called to action by the photographs of a young Dorothy Counts attempting to desegregate a high school in North Carolina, surrounded by a jeering mob of young white men. Baldwin served as witness and scribe for the movement.
Had Baldwin finished the book, it would no doubt have been a work of massive cultural import. Peck does more than just revive the manuscript, with the help of Samuel L. Jackson’s narration. He brings it alive with photographs, archival news footage, Hollywood films and Baldwin himself, enhancing the words he wrote with his TV appearances and filmed debates.
Peck goes even further than that, stitching together a film that is completely contemporary; he liberates the text from Baldwin’s era to show that his ideas are timeless, and that the battles have not been won. Through careful yet bold editing choices, Peck applies Baldwin’s words to events such as the Rodney King beating and the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo. It’s bracing, invigorating stuff, the editing keeping pace with Baldwin’s words, from the self-reflective, sensitive manuscript informed by his personal history, to his fiery orations at the Cambridge debates or on the Dick Cavett show.
Baldwin fiercely investigates the accepted norm of whiteness in culture, through his own experience and through the institutions of the United States, and Peck aids in that argument with examples from Hollywood films such as “The Defiant Ones,” “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” the 1930s musicals and social realist dramas of Baldwin’s youth, as well as advertisements, training videos, and other media scraps and detritus.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is a film that crackles with electricity, from its daring visual design and storytelling, to Baldwin’s achingly brilliant mind. It races along; it feels as if it would take at least three viewings to absorb it all, and when it ends, breathlessly, with an abrupt stop, you yearn for more. It’s the marriage of the minds of two bold artists and cultural critics. Baldwin offers the foundation, and Peck gives light to his unfinished book, adding his own updates, addendums and analyses.
Baldwin beautifully explains the existential crisis of race in America, asserting that America will never fully reckon with itself until it reckons with race and inequality. The film is an incisive, biting cultural analysis, a psychological examination of a nation – including its culture and institutions – in denial of its own social constructs of race and racism, created to divide us. “The world was never white,” he reminds us, and it’s a statement that reverberates to the core.
I Am Not Your Negro
Cast: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Raoul Peck
Rated PG-13 (disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)