Director: Raoul Peck
Magnolia Home Entertainment
What Raoul Peck achieves with I Am Not Your Negro is stunning – a manifesto for today (sadly) that was born forty+ years ago; that was born nearly 400 years ago…
The documentary film – pulsing to a brilliant soundtrack – uses writer James Baldwin’s words (sad, in so many ways, how crucial they are, how prescient, how they speak not just to today but of today) to map out a modern history of racism, race relations, race discussions – those that were had and those that should have been had. It is, in that sense, a collaboration beyond the grave. Samuel L. Jackson, as narrator, embodies the words from Baldwin’s unpublished works – diary entries, notes, ideas that were being sketched out for a set of essays on the deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. There are passages, too, from some of Baldwin’s published works.
The fire and prophesy of his words so potent even when he could never have predicted the Barrack Obama administration, nor Ferguson or the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Then of course comes Trump and an ugly surge of white nationalism.
All of this is filtered into I Am Not Your Negro. All of this resonates.
And through it we also get a portrait of Baldwin the writer, the scholar, the performer, the passionate and thoughtful mind.
From footage across the 1960s – and a terrific interview with Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show – the film also shows images from the last few years, from Ferguson, around Black Lives Matter, an unease hangs heavy, as it should. Well, of course it shouldn’t – if you know what I mean. But we’re doomed here, never learning, not listening…history repeating, the heaviness palpable, the disappointment obvious.
Baldwin tells us he’s an optimist, he has to be. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive”. How sad – and brilliant – that his words have never seemed more alive.
I Am Not Your Negro burns through the screen. It hits hard. It’s beautifully made – the sound design, the score, the choices – but it hits hard. And hurts. Just as it should.