Ten years in the making, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” yields a breathtakingly beautiful experience from the ugliest part of American history, detailing race relations and offering a unique perspective on the civil rights movement through the words of James Baldwin. Taking its narration from 30 pages of notes the great African-American writer and social critic compiled for an unpublished book (“Remember This House”) that would’ve relayed the black experience through the prism of three slain civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom he knew personally – the film may be accurately described as an essay, but unfurls with power only a cinematic treatment by a true master of the form like Peck could afford.
Cinema is also the only form that would do justice to Baldwin’s ruminations on the image of the black American, particularly as portrayed in the popular media. Accompanied by gripping, lived-in narration from Samuel L. Jackson – his voice almost conspiratorial as if he’s slung his arm around your shoulder – the film is incredibly intimate with Baldwin seamlessly blending his personal history into a greater historical sweep. Recalling how he saw the Joan Crawford musical “Dance Fools Dance” at the age of 7 and describing a black woman at the local store as looking just like her, a notion that was only confusing when he realized that white people could never make the same indistinction, his journey as a black man and how he feels he’s seen by the eyes of the white majority frequently refers to other films to note the differing perspectives, making such trenchant observations as how white liberals could be counted on to cheer when Sidney Poitier leapt off the train with Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones,” but black audiences would roar, “Stay on the train.”
The continual vibrancy of Baldwin’s ideas is underscored by Peck’s intricate consideration of every frame of film. Though relying on archival material, the filmmakers appear to have taken great pains to present footage that has barely appeared anywhere else, if at all, whether it is a major public event such as the 1957 desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock or recordings of Baldwin culled from his personal archives, provided exclusively by his estate. Modern-day imagery created by cinematographers Henry Adebonojo and Bill and Turner Ross (“Contemporary Color”) achieve a poetry equal to Baldwin’s words, with scenes of Times Square and swamplands to elevate the author’s descriptions of places he’s traveled across America into the present tense, and in sharp, digital clarity, to match his piercing eloquence.
With references to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ferguson and even a nod to the political rise of Donald Trump, the film is unquestionably timely, but doesn’t speak to this moment specifically so much as to ignite an ongoing discussion, recognizing the tip-toeing around the subject of race will only let the issues around it to continue to persist. If anything, the opportunity to hear a voice as bold as Baldwin’s, as well as seeing clips of talk shows of the 1960s and ’70s when a panel could include the writer, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte, among others, and have the air time to openly talk about race relations, makes it feel as if we’ve regressed in public discourse, even after the election of our first African-American president. Fortunately, the urgent and vital “I Am Not Your Negro” is likely going to be a conversation starter for a long time to come.