Raoul Peck’s new documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic essay of the kind that requires, and rewards, undivided attention. Peck uses the writing of James Baldwin,as well as archival footage of Baldwin himself, to draw connective strings between the lives and legacies of three figures of the Civil Rights movement. Amidst the historical exploration, Peck also drops images and footage from recent clashes between Americans and the militarized police.
The unfinished manuscript that narrates I Am Not Your Negro was a book that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death, titled Remember This House. It would cover the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Director Raoul Peck wrote in a statement for the film: “These three men were black, but it is not the color of their skin that connected them. They fought on quite different battlefields. And quite differently. But in the end, all three were deemed dangerous. They were unveiling the haze of racial confusion.”
The other thing that connects them? In the span of five years, they were all murdered for their efforts. Baldwin “loved these men,” Peck says. “These assassinations broke him down.”
It was from that brokenness that Baldwin began Remember this House. With this book, Baldwin was “determined to expose the complex links and similarities among these three individuals.” But he never had the chance.
That’s where Peck comes in, exposing not just the links between Evers, Malcom X, and King, but also how their work remains relevant to today’s discordant culture. The exploration leads primarily, however, to James Baldwin.
Baldwin’s language is constant in the film, and his literary execution cuts through the noise that usually accompanies discussions of Race and Violence. When ruminating on MLK or Malcolm or Evers, its always as much a portrait of Baldwin’s incisiveness that is being received.
The intermingling of the lives and deaths of ’60s Civil Rights leaders with contemporary state violence against black Americans creates a moving historical documentary and powerful polemic about the state of life for African Americans in 2017.
Clips of Baldwin giving interviews or making speeches demonstrate his powerful mind and unabashed spirit. The words of Baldwin are given to Samuel L. Jackson, who reads them with a uncharacteristic steadiness. At times I Am Not Your Negro becomes perhaps too dense in the language of Baldwin (he’s the kind of author better read off the page, where sentences can be poured over at length), but the effects of the film linger and resonate with striking conviction.
As a documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is inquisitive and philosophical, less interested in finding answers than it is in carving through Baldwin’s unfinished book and the man’s grief over the lost lives of his friends.