The unfinished memoirs of critic and writer James Baldwin are brought to life by the voice of Samuel L. Jackson in Raoul Peck’s astonishing I Am Not Your Negro. A striking film essay that divulges Baldwin’s thoughts and criticism of the historical treatment of African-Americans during the fifties and sixties, this is a truly riveting piece of documentary cinema that needs to be revisited more than once to feel its full effect. Baldwin’s unfinished literary analysis, Remember This House is a meditation on the lives of three influential civil-rights activists and close friends of Baldwin; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. New life is breathed into his words that feel more timely than ever, demonstrated in the illustrations used of modern police brutality, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests and archive footage of Baldwin himself. To see Baldwin in archive footage and to hear him in the film’s narration is desperately powerful. The film’s editing creates a complex and deep meditation on the work of Baldwin, his beliefs and both the historic and modern experiences of America’s black communities and individuals. I Am Not Your Negro was one of four documentaries by black filmmakers to be nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary. I recently heard Peck speaking on a Guardian podcast about the issues with diversity that still plague the historic ceremony. His response echoed those of Baldwin, that it is not about the superficial results but that the real issue lies with the number of films and stories being made and told by and about black people.
Change starts from the ground up, something I Am Not Your Negro highlights through Baldwin’s proof of how black people have been held down through multiple American systems from education to housing. I Am Not Your Negro is many things; it’s angry, hopeful, hopeless, frustrated, exasperated and passionate; as though Baldwin’s own personality is driving it. It’s technically versatile with a wonderful range of aesthetic choices made to raise the content and the context to new heights. Where it struggles is with bringing together the three men Baldwin explores and how their lives and deaths coincided to shape change for African Americans. The three men and their relation to one another never quite merges properly and it is Baldwin himself who remains the one clear thread,embroidering their lives and work together. Baldwin was not only part of an ethnic minority but a sexual one too. As a gay, black man Baldwin battled through the obstacles that threatened his race and sexual orientation with his words, and the dedication he brought to the fight for equality. Despite the powerful gravitas of I Am Not Your Negro I can’t help but feel that its exploration of Baldwin and his work is limited. This is by no means a criticism of the film but more of a testament to just how much impact Baldwin had. This is a wonderful introduction to Baldwin’s work and is crying out for some form of follow up piece where Baldwin’s writing and beliefs can be digested and unpacked in more detail. Despite Baldwin himself requiring further attention, I Am Not Your Negro is evidently a precious cinematic and historic artefact, shining a light on a dark history which continues to influence American race dynamics today.
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