'I Am Not Your Negro'
It’s all too easy to dismiss conventionally constructed documentaries that mix archival footage and voiceover. The form has become so familiar and (shudder) educational that it often feels more like a school assignment than cinema. However, Raoul Peck’s deservedly Oscar-nominated documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ makes a stirring case that the popular PBS non-fiction format can be as vital as ever.
It certainly helps that Peck’s subject, James Baldwin, provided some of the most powerful, thoughtful and timeless writing on American race relations that still feel thrillingly contemporary when spoken by the great Samuel L. Jackson here. Peck’s meticulous research and carefully selected visual essay accompanying those words heightens the experience in disarmingly simple combination of familiar images and sound that have a unique power when thrust together.
The film springs from James Baldwin’s unfinished book, ‘Remember This House’, which he was working on at the time of his death in 1987. The project was ambitious and a culmination of the writer’s career. It was intended to be the definitive account of what it meant to be black in America in the 20th Century, as told through the lives of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The concept obviously held weight, and it’s a shame that Baldwin was never able to finish it. Thankfully, Raoul Peck finds a way of honoring Baldwin’s idea while incorporating the life of the author into the narrative as well as images of contemporary racial strife and activism to prove just how little has changed in the ensuing three decades.
The bulk of the 30 pages that Baldwin was able to complete serve as a backbone for the film, paying tribute to the three men that the author appreciated so dearly and exploring their struggles with insight and power. Beyond that, Peck was also granted access to Baldwin’s entire estate, so he weaves together words from throughout the author’s career, making him just as important a figure in the story. It varies from anecdotes about working on a Hollywood version of ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ with Billy Dee Williams while learning about the assassination of MLK, to growing up in a divided nation and his experience with seeing how black America was represented (and more often misrepresented) on film. Throughout the project, Peck incorporates contemporary footage to hammer home the way these ideas and tragedies repeat themselves in the 21st Century.
Hiring Samuel L. Jackson to read those words doesn’t hurt. The actor dials back much of his trademark bravado to deliver a quieter and subtler manner in keeping with Baldwin. His readings have wit and humor and emotion. It’s practically a performance, which is made all the more clear when Baldwin himself appears on screen in archival footage from speeches and talk shows. Jackson isn’t doing an impression. It’s more about capturing the essence of the important man through his words.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a project that director Raoul Peck spent years researching, editing and massaging. It shows. The film is dense with information, images and layers of meaning. However, it’s not overwhelming. The filmmaker took his time to include all of the important information within a structure that flows and has a certain arresting momentum. The documentary makes an impact that few movies in the format manage and it feels like a vitally important document for this particular moment in time. Seek it out. This one is important.