Drawn from an unpublished and unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro” is a scorching, stunningly relevant documentary, almost hypnotically combining the late author’s provocative words and interviews with cinematic and historical images.
Just nominated for an Oscar as best documentary alongside two other films devoted to aspects of the black experience – “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America” – the project simultaneously looks back and forward, resonating as both history and present-day social commentary at a time of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite.
This is not, notably, a biography; rather, director Raoul Peck has created what amounts to an extended visual essay, weaving together footage that lends weight to Baldwin’s powerful prose.
Peck gained access to material from Baldwin’s estate, using 30 pages written for a planned book devoted to the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as the film’s thematic spine.
The result is a sweeping looking at race relations, and in particular how African Americans have been depicted in media. For those marginally familiar with him, it’s also a bracing introduction to Baldwin as a social commentator, with Samuel L. Jackson breathing life into his writings, augmented by extensive clips of the author in venues such as Dick Cavett’s show.
Most impressively, Peck visually connects Baldwin’s decades-old musings to current events through scenes of recent racial unrest, incorporating footage from places like Ferguson, Mo. Similarly, as Baldwin speaks of a media environment “designed not to trouble, but to reassure,” images of game shows flash across the screen.
Peck thus weaves together Baldwin’s thoughts on politics, culture and race. The blacks he saw in movies as his youth, Baldwin wrote, “lied about the world I knew” with their exaggerated images of “comic, bug-eyed terror.” All the heroes, meanwhile, were white, a thought juxtaposed with John Wayne galloping across the screen in “Stagecoach.”
Baldwin – who died in 1987 – also contemplates the messages conveyed by movies like “The Defiant Ones” and “Imitation of Life,” as well as how the movies presented civil-rights era African American stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
The tale of African Americans, Baldwin observed, “is not a pretty story. … This is not the land of the free.”
With “I Am Not Your Negro,” Peck has taken Baldwin’s view of that history – how he saw it then and its implications now – and turned it into a pretty brilliant, thought-provoking film.
“I Am Not Your Negro” opens in select theaters on February 3.