Probably the most brilliant aspect of Raoul Peck’s challenging documentary is that he doesn’t make you work to understand how it applies to today. Very often, the footage playing to Baldwin’s writing is from today. It is clear how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Another powerful choice was his selection of Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) as the voice of Baldwin. Though he pointedly tried not to imitate Baldwin, by his own interviews, it fits with all of the archival footage almost seamlessly.
James Baldwin was a scholar, an icon, and a man with the ability to bring an outsider’s view to the troubles and hypocrisies of American life and the history of the country. He was a quiet, but intense revolutionary bringing his intellect to bear in both printed and live forums. We could sorely use him today, but his lessons are all still applicable, if not any more as immediate.
Peck took Baldwin’s surviving notes for a planned book to create this film. It is full of archival footage and, as mentioned, brilliant voice over of Baldwin’s writings. As a window on the soul of this country, and any country where there was an institutionalized underclass, it is more than a little disturbing and unflinching. The power of the message and insight is uncomfortably bare and unavoidable.
As a film it is a bit less effective. Though there is the stated conceit of telling Baldwin’s life through his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., it isn’t really about that at all, though they all play roles in the narrative. We get little of Baldwin’s personal life… instead, the material lectures (brilliantly) on the world around him. While impactful, it doesn’t feel personal. It is more of a survey course of American history with the touch-points of the assassinations. Part of Peck’s challenge, no doubt, was the incomplete outline that had survived Baldwin he was working with, which was all framework and little flesh.
Regardless, this is a film worth seeing; particularly now. The reflection of today against the past is chilling, even if you have already recognized the similarities. We all want to believe that as we move forward as people and as a country we learn and improve. I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that mistakes, beliefs, fears, and self-delusions are not so easily shed and remain as ongoing subtext or repeat themselves until they are acknowledged in full and faced.