Novelist, playwright, poet and cultural critic James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent in 1979, describing a book he planned to write, based on his years involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. It was to explore the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
There were only 30 pages of manuscript when Baldwin died in 1987, and now Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has breathed new life into Baldwin’s work in the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Baldwin served as a witness to the civil rights movement, alongside Medgar, Malcolm and Martin, returning to the U.S. from ex-pat life in Paris. He was called to action by the photographs of a young Dorothy Counts attempting to desegregate a high school in North Carolina, surrounded by a jeering mob of young white men. Baldwin served as witness and scribe.
Had Baldwin finished his book about the human rights leaders, it would no doubt have been a work of massive cultural import.
Peck does more than just revive the manuscript, with the help of Samuel L. Jackson’s narration. He brings it alive with photographs, archival news footage, Hollywood films and Baldwin himself, in TV appearances and filmed debates.
Yet Peck’s film is completely contemporary; he liberates the text from Baldwin’s era to show that his ideas are timeless, and that the battles have not been won. Through careful yet bold editing choices, Peck applies Baldwin’s words to events such as the Rodney King beating and the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo. It’s bracing, invigorating stuff, the editing keeping pace with Baldwin’s words, from the self-reflective, sensitive manuscript informed by his personal history to his fiery orations at the debates or on the Dick Cavett show.
Baldwin fiercely investigates the accepted norm of whiteness in culture, through his own experience and American institutions, and Peck aids the argument with examples from Hollywood films like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, 1930s musicals and social realist dramas of Baldwin’s youth, as well as advertisements, training videos and other media scraps.
“I Am Not Your Negro” crackles with electricity, from its daring visual design and storytelling, to Baldwin’s achingly brilliant mind. It races along; it feels as if it would take at least three viewings to absorb it all, and it when it ends, breathlessly, with an abrupt stop, you yearn for more.
— Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
I Am Not Your Negro
Starring: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
Written by: James Baldwin
Directed by: Raoul Peck
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
I Am Not Your NegroJames BaldwinMalcolm XMartin Luther King JrMedgar EversMovies and TVRaoul PeckSamuel L. Jackson