“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
In a portion of American history where all of the fault lines have begun intercepting and widening, I Am Not Your Negro neither offers solutions nor gives itself as a balm. Instead, by reciting and interpreting an unfinished James Baldwin book, this documentary opens a portal. Where exactly this gate leads depends on the viewer’s origin. For some, already living in the full and unbridled acknowledgment of the societal ills compiled here it may serve as a rejoinder, another voice joining the fray. For those peering into these calamitous events from the outside, it will illuminate notions that have been carried about, with righteously increasing volume, for decades. Yet for all, it provides a glimpse into Baldwin himself, not through obvious memoir or a litany of anecdotes (though those elements exist, and add a distinctly human dimension). Instead it captures his mind, as both read in present day and captured during his time on earth.
The opening of the film relays the necessary information: that the words we will hear (as recited by Samuel L. Jackson) come from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The motivation behind that book was, in part, to display the vitality and tragedy of three men: Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. By capturing these stories in this precise nature, director Raoul Peck has added a fourth ideology, that of Baldwin himself. I Am Not Your Negro is, more than anything, a conversation. That dialogue exists between the figures that it hones in on. We see Malcolm and King and Baldwin together yet apart on one program, their stances on black lives in America thrown against each other yet unified by underlying woes. After this footage, we learn that as they aged, Malcolm and King grew closer in their beliefs. We see Baldwin’s voice bleed through all of this, scooping up the varied angles and presenting them as both fact and opinion.
This is not the only clash present in the film, however. There is also the slow march of the past tossed against the unknown and unknowable present day. Peck captures this, presenting deaths and victories that Baldwin did not live to see, without ever cutting down the author’s perspective. The film holds Baldwin in high regard, even when the juxtapositions lead to something that could be considered argumentative. Take, for example, a video of Baldwin discussing Robert Kennedy’s claim that a black man could soon be president. This matter is dismissed, and we cut to the sight of the Obamas, existing in a future Baldwin could not have known. But this was not his argument, that Kennedy was incorrect. Instead, he took issue with the fact that black people were again being told to wait, so that one day they might have the triumph of being represented in White House. And so, over the footage of Barack and Michelle beaming with optimism, the music is somber or at the very least introspective. Nothing has ever been easily won, and no win has ever meant everything. This is a dire lesson, but not a nihilistic one, and Peck portrays it with the necessary gravitas.
Much of the film bundles up this archival footage, from the Watts riots of 60’s LA to modern day Ferguson, MO. And it is all assembled with care and patience, especially cuts to b-roll that slap you out of the dismay of whatever came before. Then you are jarred again with a return to brutality, such as when you travel from a white women fretting about love to a series of lynched bodies representing far greater quandaries. I Am Not Your Negro, as followed from Remember This House, utilizes media critique as much as any other language, adept at presenting clips that lay waste to presumed ideology. When the film encounters The Defiant Ones, we learn of Baldwin’s gleaned difference between reactions from white and black audiences. We see that some moments in film that the former celebrated, the latter reviled. Another portal is opened through, appropriately, the cinema.
All of this material stands with a bravado intellect representative of the man Baldwin was, and the way his writing has only grown in value and stature since his death. Yet nothing is as inherently stirring as the sight of the man himself, sitting next to Dick Cavett in a far cry from modern late-night television. All of his speaking as seen on this show is fluid and rings the poetry he somehow tied to intellectualism. And then the film pulls off something close to a catharsis point when a white professor of philosophy comes on to garble through accusations of the “race card”. Baldwin’s response is electric and deeply felt, his posture shifting as he grows more pronounced and the cigarette in his hand feeling like an extension of his soreness with this professor’s absurd rebuttal. Much of what I Am Not a Negro manages to capture about Baldwin is through recitation, relying on what may be one of Jackson’s best performances, lingering somewhere between capturing the exact voice of the man and the more elusive passion behind his words. But nothing could ever prove the existence and necessity of Baldwin like seeing Baldwin himself. Peck brilliantly collides these halves, the represented and the literal, creating a document that launches words written decades ago firmly into the present day.