Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a superb invocation, a necessary new reading of a grand voice. It’s a subtly drawn and impactful summation of James Baldwin’s literary essence and social conscience, confidently packaged as a 90-minute essay with crisply precise editing that explores and experiences Baldwin’s prose through new and old lenses alike. In a modern world where race relations have been recently defined by names like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and a President with questionable awareness of the contributions of Frederick Douglass, Baldwin’s thoughts are as essential as ever. I Am Not Your Negro is the kind of documentary that could open ears, eyes, and hearts with its moving agony and historical empathy.
Not only is I Am Not Your Negro a remembrance of the insights of Baldwin, the famed writer/scholar/orator/advocate/bon vivant, but it’s a rejuvenation of his timeless ideas. For his part, Peck isn’t here to posit solutions. He merely asks his audience to listen in on Baldwin, and think about what he meant and still means. The politics of representation, understanding the privileges and demands that come with learning about unknown ethnic experiences, and the necessity of hope for the future are all among the many ideas explored..
The film begins with the framework of Baldwin’s Remember This House. He was unable to finish the book, a triple reminiscence on the lives, impact, and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Baldwin never made it past page 30, but Peck was entrusted with the manuscript, along with various notes and letters, and it acts as a jumping-off point from which I Am Not Your Negro explores the seemingly irrational dreams of a racially well-adjusted nation. These men represented a battle. They were the dialogue of Civil Rights personified. And Baldwin was in their periphery, experiencing the same plight. But he wasn’t quite the same kind of reactionary or organizer as his peers. Perhaps he marched, and was willing to put himself out there, but he fought many of his best battles through his words. As such, Peck takes an interesting narrative route by framing Baldwin’s views on those men as a functional history of the black experience in America.
Peck returns to Baldwin’s youth, characterizing multiple moments of clarity through Samuel L. Jackson’s demure and confident narration. Jackson scales back his usual delivery, putting bass and serious inflection into every read. In “Paying My Dues,” Peck sets up Baldwin’s worldview with the curt juxtaposition of trivialized MLK bobbleheads alongside comic book characters like Thor and Iron Man in Times Square, while Baldwin waxes nostalgic over a certain era of beauty for black people in places like New York City. “I missed that style, possessed by no other people in the world,” Baldwin writes. And it reads with a longing irony in Peck’s hands.
For “Heros,” we hear Baldwin recall his white schoolteacher, a woman named Orilla “Bill” Miller, who introduced Baldwin to the economics of race, the concepts of Nazi Germany, and the power of presence in plays and movies like King Kong. Peck suggests that this awakening helped develop Baldwin’s rational loathing for stereotypes like Man Tan, or the scared, clumsy janitor in Mervyn Leroy’s film They Won’t Forget. Baldwin loathed these depictions wholesale, and was hardly shy about acknowledging his embarrassment with them. Peck matches Baldwin’s anger with stock footage of bug-eyed, racist film stereotypes throughout the years.
Baldwin witnesses systemic indignities, and the film foregrounds his ability to acutely capture his target, whatever it may have been. “Selling the Negro” is both a chronicle of the slave trade, and a meditation on the slow acceptance of black culture in the mainstream. This chapter, with Baldwin recounting MLK’s “free at last” claim while Peck layers him over footage of the Obamas marching at their inauguration, hits simultaneous notes of melancholy and optimism. Peck doesn’t let up, and is almost operatic in his multi-layered reads of Baldwin, but there’s a truthful and authentic fire to his interpretation as well.
Peck’s approach does well in capturing Baldwin’s often frustrated contemplation. Baldwin addresses the 15-year-old Dorothy Counts, harassed in 1950s North Carolina when she was integrated into predominantly white schools. I Am Not Your Negro uses this incident to measure a nation’s ugliness, and its will to change, however incremental that change may be. Peck underscores Baldwin’s recollections with a harsh series of portraits of Southern boys screeching at an innocent young woman. Baldwin is quoted as having said that he does not hate white people, but he has contemplated killing them from time to time, and the film invokes these valuable, volatile observations in rapid succession.
Baldwin resents Sidney Poitier’s star status because of the actor’s inability to be deemed sexual by the mainstream. He bemoans TV’s ability to popularize grotesque behavior (which Peck aligns with horrid talk show fights, and clips of “special episodes” of daytime shows on mixed-race marriages). Baldwin’s words are cynical, fatigued, and impassioned, but almost always nuanced. The only outburst comes late in the film, from Baldwin lashing out on Dick Cavett’s show, pained in his admission that optimism is hard to maintain. But that’s Peck’s parting thesis: no matter how awful life gets, no matter how much injustice and hatred Baldwin endured, and regardless of how hard it is to march on at the end of the day, it’s still possible. Baldwin endures as an intellectual monument to black determination. The author saw horrible things in his time, and yet his prose (and this film) simply asks his audience to reflect, and to work harder for a better future.
“The negro has not been as docile as white Americans want it to be.” Baldwin proclaims at one point. Please, listen to those words. Don’t react immediately. Let them sink in. That’s Baldwin, from decades ago, reflecting in his journals about the tension of interracial relations in America. These are unfinished thoughts from Remember This House, and yet they continue to ring as true as they ever have. His words are placed over raw footage of Selma and Ferguson, among many other images that offer a reminder of how much black America has had to overcome, and still struggles against. Peck innately understands Baldwin’s lamentations and strength, and what he was likely looking to put to paper. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary which makes a statement not just for now, but for all time.