RELEASE DATE: February 3, 2017
DIRECTOR: Raoul Peck
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 94 minutes
On the surface, I Am Not Your Negro is little more than a video essay. Director Raoul Peck has taken the text of an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin and applied it to both a biography of the man and contemporary social commentary. Yet what keeps it from a fate of mediocrity is the care that Peck takes in bringing Baldwin’s eloquent text to the screen. The film is not just a look at how there are many racial and social problems still remaining in the United States – it fundamentally questions the elements upon which American society is founded.
Baldwin had titled the manuscript Remember This House, and it was a sort of memorial to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – three acquaintances of his who were killed in relatively quick succession. Despite spending most of his adult life in France, Baldwin found himself connected to the experiences he had as an American. He mentions visiting United States and feeling oddly at home, despite never missing it while in Europe. Samuel L. Jackson narrates the passages and does so with a weary, wise warmth. At times, he speaks barely above a whisper. It’s then that his delivery chills the spine and adds that much more emotion to his words.
The past and the present are intermingled in upfront, often-uncomfortable ways. Baldwin mentions how our culture comes from the marginalization of past pain, and Peck does not hesitate to prove how history is commodified as simply a point of reference, rather than a part of us. Film clips of 1940’s comedy shorts mix with revisionist Westerns; there’s also footage of the protests and tensions between minorities and the police that have put cities on edge in recent years.
Peck is a filmmaker who operates in the most direct possible terms – a flurry of images spin before each scene and each paragraph. Some are black-and-white photographs; others are colorful, all-too-vivid videos that punctuated the news cycle, in Ferguson and elsewhere, as the fabric of society seemingly was pulled apart at the seams, and many of us were reminded that we were not living in a post-race society.
There are no pretenses made about predicting the future because it’s never assumed that the key tenants of these issues will diverge from past patterns. This is certainly a cynical stance to take, but Peck makes sure his film is never one of gloomy prognostication – or lack thereof. It’s a document of how time changes much in one respect and nothing at all in another.
He takes special care to make sure that Baldwin is the center of the film. This is easy to do when old clips of him on The Dick Cavett Show are being played but a more difficult endeavor when the film slides off into a side-note diversion about one of its secondary subjects. At times, when opaque parallels are drawn between one thing or another – such as an overlong connection between a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Baldwin’s prediction of a black president within four decades of his writing and footage of the first inauguration of Barack Obama – it begins to feel as if Peck has overstretched his resources.
But could this have been a short instead of a feature length project? My gut tells me no. The breadth and scope of content that this movie covers is so vast and thorough that it commands your attention and justifies an hour and a half to make its points. I Am Not Your Negro may be an essay, but it is one that proves itself as a film.
This would have been a considerably less powerful experience in any other format than one where images and sounds marry. Peck knows that we need to see it all and hear it all. Very few problems, if any, are meant to be solved here, but the primary argument is clear: James Baldwin is as relevant an author as ever – even, or especially, after three decades in the grave.
I Am Not Your Negro landed on editor Mary Leslie’s Top Documentaries of 2016 list. Click here to check it out.