By Dorany Pineda
Director Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” is a powerful homage to the civil rights movement and to several of the legendary figures that emerged from it, told through the poetic and moral richness of James Baldwin’s words and experiences. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.
It is not a very pretty story,” wrote James Baldwin in his essay “Many Thousands Gone” published in 1955.
Those are the word that echo throughout the winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Documentary award and Oscar nominee for Best Documentary. The film draws influence from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” among other works.
The book was meant to be a personal account of his friends and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, all of whom were murdered less than half a decade apart.
What makes the documentary unique is that it doesn’t rely on interviews by friends, academics or relatives–a method that’s typically used to present a film’s subject to viewers. Instead, the film unravels using only Baldwin’s words with a voiceover narration by Samuel L. Jackson.
This technique allows for a personal insight into the brilliant mind of one of the most influential writers, activists and social critics of the civil rights era. A lover of movies, Baldwin was deeply critical of the racial stereotypes and cultural representations of African-Americans in Hollywood.
Excerpts from films like 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and 1931’s “Dance, Fools, Dance” are frequently used to shed light on the industry’s depiction of black and white characters; blacks as menacing and insignificant, and the latter as sophisticated, pure and innocent. It’s important to note that a major part of Baldwin’s identity–his sexuality– is left out almost entirely in the documentary with only one brief mention of it in the 90-minute flick.
Baldwin was gay, a fact that he wrote extensively about during his career. Though the film serves as an introduction to the life and prose of Baldwin, it feels like it paints an incomplete picture of him.
The content in “I Am Not Your Negro” is often difficult to watch, but it power fully seams the force and urgency of Baldwin’s writings to scenes and images from the civil rights period and modern life.
It pins his personal experiences as a black man next to the realities of black lives in contemporary America–from Black Lives Matter and Ferguson, to the presidency of Barack Obama and the revival of white nationalism. It is a fascinating and sometimes painful film, but one that believes in the power of self-reflection–both personal and national.