America has long been a country divided, afflicted by the separation between white and black men and it still continues to this day. I Am Not Your Negro is a unique documentary that is an analysis of the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s right through to the current Black Lives Matter movement. But also an insight into the very personal dealings of African American essayist, playwright and social critic James Baldwin with his friends and civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Director Raoul Peck (Murder in Pacot, Lumumba) takes a unique approach with this film. Using Baldwin’s own words from an unfinished manuscript titled Remember This House and narrated by Samuel L Jackson, overlaid on top of archival video footage and still photographs of the civil rights movement. I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful and evocative look at racism, prejudice and what seems like the ongoing struggle of the Black man to be a part of America and its society. And despite this text being written in the 1980’s just before Baldwin’s death from stomach cancer, it still rings true and all too relevant for today.
This at times feels like a deeply intimate telling of what it was like to be a young black man growing up in a tumultuous period during America’s history. Baldwin (via Jackson’s restrained and smooth voice-acting delivery) details a dissociation from being black because mainstream media such as film and television only showed white people, white action heroes and white Hollywood starlets. That it wasn’t until he saw sickening scenes of segregationist groups jeering young black students in the South that he realised there was a gaping divide.
He recounts an instance of when he was delivering a lecture and there in the front row was Malcolm X listening intently to his every word. He, along with other notable civil rights activists such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr would all become friends. And that three of them would all be murdered in soon succession of each other, Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. With each death comes both a personal blow to Baldwin but also a blow to the people during these difficult times.
Yet even when this feels like Baldwin’s own memoir, his prose and eloquent delivery, edited and taken from his own lectures or footage from The Dick Cavett Show also paint a picture of a man watching these things happening from the outside. His words are both scathing and precise but never simplistic or blunt, and never delivered with animosity or anger. It sounds more like a desperate commentary of the state of affairs. After being persecuted on “suspicions of homosexuality” by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I, Baldwin later fled to France. So this may be where his ability to distance himself, and objectively view all of this stemmed from.
Throughout all of this film editor Alexandra Strauss litters in video footage, still photographs and audio that marries up with Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s words. We are treated to his take on mid-century American attitudes, how his beautiful teacher at school ‘Bill’ Miller or one of his first ever high school girlfriends made him realise he could never hate white people. How media and imagery of Doris Day, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Sidney Poitier, Ray Charles or Harry Belafonte were more than just celebrities but a reflection of how American society saw itself. In Baldwin’s own words “The story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story” and near the close of the film are graphic depictions of lynchings, how horrifically right he was.
Peck manages to deliver a brutally honest documentary that not only pays intimate tribute to Baldwin, but also those legendary leaders of the civil rights movement. It also serves as a cultural thesis on the events and actions of the past that are scarily all too present today. It never attempts to gloss over the difficulties American society has with coming to terms with its checkered past. Instead it prefers to lay it all down for us to bear witness, just like Baldwin witnessed, and make our own judgements.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 93 minutes
I Am Not Your Negro was originally reviewed as part of the Sydney Film Festival. It is now screening in limited release around Australia.