Cast: James Baldwin
Director: Raoul Peck
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Author James Baldwin's searing proclamations regarding race relations, inequality, and the United States' endemic racism towards African Americans is given a powerful platform in Raoul Peck's decades-in-the-making documentary I Am Not Your Negro. This is a film with a startling clarity of vision, unfolding like a cinematic collage structured around 30 pages of notes Baldwin was working on for a book recalling the lives of three prominent black men; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Peck's devastating document uses Baldwin's writings to contrast the systems and institutions perpetuated by self-hating white men with the quiet dignity, fiery rhetoric, and unspoken martyrdom of these three men who were assassinated between 1963 and 1968 for harboring notions about the role of African Americans in a nation who broadly believed them to be less than human.
Unlike Ava Duvernay's equally important documentary 13th, which also examined systematic racism and black oppression, Peck's film doesn't have a gallery of talking-head experts dispensing a rush of information. Instead, he focuses only on the voice and writings of Baldwin; a function which elevates I Am Not Your Negro beyond mere history lesson and into the realm of the historically prophetic. Though the picture does shift around in time, including bits from Ferguson and footage taken from modern-day protests, the majority of screen time is dedicated to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, including some revelatory interviews with Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show.
Ingeniously structured as a highlight reel meshing archival footage of Baldwin with clips from old films, commercials, still photographs, and other mixed media, I Am Not Your Negro presents a staggering collective vision of the United States as a nation drowning in self-delusion, fear, paranoia, and hatred. Throughout, Baldwin's words (read by Samuel L. Jackson, who lowers his voice to a somber monotone in a feat of superlative voice acting) haunt the proceedings with clarity, passion, weariness, and undeniable pain. During one jaw-dropping moment, we hear Bobby Kennedy posing the possibility of a black president "within the next 40 years", and it's Baldwin's response that hits like a gut-punch. As Peck superimposes a slow motion image of Barak and Michelle Obama waving to a throng of hopeful supporters, we hear Baldwin eviscerating Kennedy's well-meaning but clueless statement; a statement, by the way, coming from a place of white privilege and power. In other words, for a black man or woman to become president, he or she must be superhumanly qualified. For a white man to be president, however, he needs only wealth, power, corruption, and nepotism in order to rule. Baldwin's takedown of Kennedy is not only the defining moment of Peck's film, but also a defining moment of historical specificity which locates the existential hopelessness of being a black citizen in a country which no longer has an economic need for them to exist. Sadly, this is a cyclical pattern because the seeds of racism are ultimately imbedded within the DNA of America to begin with.
Baldwin's exegesis extended beyond government entities and institutions, though, as he spent a lot of time also critiquing Hollywood productions as "grotesque appeals to innocence." Peck unspools various montages featuring classic Tinseltown footage, with clips from pictures such as 1957's Love in the Afternoon and 1961's Lover Come Back making the rounds, as well as a damning assessment of actor Sidney Poitier, long considered an Uncle Tom sell-out by many in the black community for being subservient to a morally bankrupt system. More than simply pinpointing these institutions of ignorance and self-delusion, however, it's Baldwin's eloquence and humanity in being able to analyze the heart of why they exist and the questions white people must pose to themselves which lingers most. In one of the film's most powerful recollections, Baldwin speaks about how, as a child, he would cheer on John Wayne in movies which essentially presented him as a hero for murdering countless Native Americans. Later, as an adult, Baldwin realized that he had been rooting for the enemy all along, and that the nameless Native American, was actually him.
As a stirring voice who understood patterns of history, Baldwin would probably have not been surprised by our current political and social state. As someone who never swore allegiance to any particular group (Muslim, Black Panthers, ACLU, etc), Baldwin's main aim was to awaken the masses to the reality of history. "We are our history", he remarked during one of his speeches; a sentiment both weary with the experience of unimaginable pain and struggle, but also teeming with hope. Peck's film honors Baldwin by not pigeonholing him into a category (his homosexuality, for example, is only mentioned briefly, mainly because Baldwin himself rarely spoke about it in public), and simply allows his weathered yet resolved words to shape the narrative.
A stunning achievement which manages to meld Baldwin's perspective with a loosely amorphous aesthetic which never feels incoherent, I Am Not Your Negro is essential viewing. Perhaps, as history continues to replicate this cycle of ignorance and hatred, we can take a small amount of hope in Baldwin's words when he uttered "I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. I'm forced to be an optimist." Like the man himself, such sentiments are rife with contradictions. However, one thing is certain; Baldwin's ideas about the "negro problem" is deeply rooted not only in social and political systems, but also in the cultural mindset which shapes our current reality. This, more than anything, makes him a both a prophet and a scholar, and Peck's film, a towering encapsulation of one man's mission to reflect our culture's hideous laws and bigoted institutions as a microcosm for the moral emptiness of the human soul.