Featuring: James Baldwin. Narrated by Samuel L Jackson.
Writer: James Baldwin.
Director: Raoul Peck
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” – James Baldwin.
The last great incomplete literary vision by American author James Baldwin is realised with precision and profound integrity in Raoul Peck’s elegant, pulse-quickening documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. The Haitian director’s dissection of a nation defined by dysfunctional race relations provides the complexity, emotion and analytical respect that Baldwin's astute work has long deserved; this extraordinarily moving and artfully rendered film is the nominee to beat in this year's Best Documentary Oscar showdown.
Born in 1924 Harlem to a single mother, Baldwin decamped from his Greenwich Village base, after years experiencing the commonplace prejudice of American life for people of colour, to settle in Paris in 1948. In an interview with The New York Times, he observed, “Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I (saw) where I came from very clearly. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” This realisation led to landmark works such as Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), the bestseller The Fire Next Time (1963), the 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie, based upon the racially-based slaying of teenager Emmet Till, and the book Nothing Personal (1964, co-authored with Richard Avalon), an account of the murder of civil rights advocate Medgar Evers.
A lauded documentarian (The Man on The Shores, 1993; Lumumba, 2000; Sometimes in April, 2005), Peck came into possession of 30 pages of the author’s notes and observations from the mid 1970s, that was to have been the basis for Remember This House, a defining account of the role played by three of Baldwin’s friends and contemporaries – Evers, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. The work remained unrealised by Baldwin, who passed away in 1987, but the material has inspired the filmmaker to construct both an understated polemic on the shameful history of American bigotry and a biography of an intellectual whose insight and passion into his nation’s dark soul is unparalleled.
Utilising archival images and interview footage of the author and the three social-change giants, as well as historic misrepresentations of the black man in white American culture, I Am Not Your Negro offers an arcing, aching narrative that spans the centuries of abuse and oppression suffered by the African American population. In measured tones not usually associated with the actor, Samuel L Jackson assumes Baldwin’s vocal cadence and recites key passages from the author’s decades-old work that, as with much of Peck’s film, offer a clarity of voice that speaks directly to the America of today.
Despite being central to a resurgent social activism filmmaking sector, I Am Not Your Negro has key points of difference to its co-nominees. It does not wear its anger and injustice on its sleeve, like Ava Duvernay’s volatile and equally vital 13th, or cast a sprawling socio-political net in the study of a fractured United States, like Ezra Edelman’s similarly masterful O.J.: Made in America. Where Raoul Peck’s take on systemic hatred and intolerance finds its own soaring cry is in its portrait of a nation that had the opportunity to right wrongs, was being led by great minds and spiritual warriors towards a better future, but which dug in its jackbooted heels.
In light of #BlackLivesMatter and the uprising in Ferguson, the impassioned thoughtfulness and unshakeable humanism of James Baldwin’s words and voice are as relevant now as any point in history. I Am Not Your Negro portrays the dignified fury with which Baldwin confronted his oppressors, past and present; it is the perfect cinematic companion piece to the man’s legacy.