Editor’s note: I Am Not Your Negro is shortlisted for 2017’s Best Documentary Academy Award. In select theaters for a series of special sneak previews this week, the film opens 3 February 2017.
“This country does not know what to do with its black population.”
— James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro
The poet laureate of the American Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin analyzed the nation’s great pathology of racism with a clarity that is vividly presented in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Arriving in theaters at a time when the national dialogue about race is rife with voices shouting past each other, the documentary gives us Baldwin at his most direct and cutting.
Peck based the film on “Remember This House”, Baldwin’s unfinished last book. It was meant as an elegy for Baldwin’s three murdered friends, all heroes of the struggle, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers: “I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other,” Baldwin writes. In the film’s deftly structured early sections, Peck teases out Baldwin’s remembrances of the men, and how he defined himself in the context of their legacies.
The interweaving of gritty and bracing archival footage serves as the backdrop for Baldwin’s remembrance, narrated in a low, rumbling crawl by a finely calibrated Samuel L. Jackson. Fortunately, Jackson interprets Baldwin’s words as an actor would, for their meaning and not as imitation. Baldwin’s slightly sing-song and clipped cadences, sounding like a preacher who has left the church but kept the religion, would be difficult to convey without lapsing into parody.
An elliptical film, I Am Not Your Negro is partially a history of the Civil Rights struggle from 1955 to 1968, framed by these three men. It’s also an unpacking of Baldwin’s take on white America’s inability to come to terms with race and racism, with which it remains obsessed but also, of which it remains ignorant. There is anger aplenty in the film, but Baldwin’s observations indicate the confusion that might be inevitable in trying to understand the “vast, unthinking cruel white majority.”
Baldwin zeroes in with sharp intent on the “unthinking” part of that description. Starting with the black stereotypes that seeped into his consciousness when he was a child (buttressed by Peck with cringe-inducing film clips), he then tilts into an angrier denunciation of a white population whose TV-addled myopia blinded it to the crushing oppression they were abetting. He decries postwar white society’s vacant materialism as being shot through with grim violence.
Baldwin contrasts such blind indifference with the three men whose brief lives exemplify a principled resistance. Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963) was the stalwart and indefatigable activist. Malcolm X (assassinated in 1965) pulled institutional racism apart like a scientifically minded boxer: he identified its inconsistencies in sharp, stentorian tones and then went in for the kill. Martin Luther King, Jr. (assassinated in 1968) spoke of racism but also past it. He acknowledged its pain and brutality in the present but also insisted on looking beyond, toward the brighter, more equitable future that would surely come as the struggle continued.
In contrast, Baldwin, even though he threads historical analysis and critiques of popular culture through his writing and speeches, frequently turns back to himself as well. Look at this person, he demands, a body, a face, a heart, a soul scarred by racism. Malcolm didn’t address his own pain, and neither did Martin. Both had the leader’s quality of appearing to subordinate their needs to those of their followers.
But Baldwin examines and vibrantly presents his pain, and by extension the pain of black Americans. He brings to his work an urgency and intelligence, crucially cataloging what was happening, then and still. He twins the personal with the economic, focusing on the systemic exploitation of blacks, from popular culture to cheap labor and political disenfranchisement. In this context, Peck’s film shows just how much Baldwin’s ideas have been inherited and carried on in the current era by Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose mordant and deeply personal Between the World and Me might be read as a companion volume.
Near the end of I Am Not Your Negro, we hear Baldwin say to white America, “I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Baldwin insists we face ourselves. His analysis remains just as cogent during the current moment of Black Lives Matter and a president-elect whose surge to power is in part shaped by resurgent white nationalism. I Am Not Your Negro reveals just how little we have faced in the years since he wrote his words.