If you’re trying to squeeze in some more Oscar contenders before the ceremony this weekend, none is more important and enriching than I Am Not Your Negro, which is likely to take the statue for Best Documentary.
I Am Not Your Negro takes dense prose written by social critic James Baldwin for a novel he never finished and contextualizes it within our contemporary social climate. The manuscript was for a book that Baldwin was working on before he died which examined race relations (as most of his writing did), framed through the lives and deaths of three important civil rights figures: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Director Raoul Peck uses archival footage along with racially charged clips from Hollywood’s past and familiar stories from today’s headlines to create his own essay around Baldwin’s words, as read by Samuel L. Jackson. The cumulative result is an assault on complacency. Even if you lose the narrative at times, it’s clear that Baldwin’s voice is as relevant today as it ever was.
While framing the issues through the lives of three famous men seems like it would be a handy structural device, this is used more as starting point, Peck’s film goes far beyond the martyrs. Baldwin was an extremely academic man, and Peck is clearly a very ambitious filmmaker, so I’ll admit that there were times that I felt a little out of my depth, but the basic message is clear: there is no righting the past, and there is still much to be done for a better future. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to understand everything, and that’s part of the point. White people can sympathize with African Americans, but they can never truly empathize with them.
Baldwin made many television appearances which Peck also draws heavily upon for some of the film’s finest moments. Baldwin’s voice is never stronger than when it’s coming directly from him, particularly in one extended conversation he had on The Dick Cavett Show. In another debate, Baldwin gave such a perfect retort that it caused the biggest applause I’d ever heard from an audience in the middle of a movie. Samuel L. Jackson also does a fine job reading Baldwin’s words without sounding too much like himself (this isn’t Go The FUCK to Sleep after all). He gives the text the appropriate weight without making it sound like a performance. It’s also fitting that the last voice we hear is Kendrick Lamar’s singing “The Blacker The Berry” over the closing credits. Lamar has many messages similar to Baldwin’s in his angry lyrics, particularly this track about his perception of white America’s perception of him.
Peck shows that what looks like progress to many has actually done little to improve race relations, as illustrated by countless events that would look like they pre-date the Civil Rights movement if they weren’t captured with an iPhone. One need look no further than Twitter to see that racism is still alive and well and no law can change that.
I Am Not Your Negro should be required viewing for anyone with a pulse and a brain. It should be made available online and air on television several times a year. It might be difficult for teens and younger audiences to access the dense text, but perhaps it would inspire them to learn more about these issues and Baldwin’s work.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.
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