Veteran Haitian-American documentarian Raoul Peck—via the writings of James Baldwin—creates an unusual, detailed, and sprawling picture of race relations in America and why a “race problem” exists only to the extent that some people want or need it.
Is it worth $10? Yes
An Oscar-nominated (Best Documentary) American film, “I Am Not Your Negro” verges on creating its own genre, despite the Academy’s facile categorizing. Director Raoul Peck, who was born in Haiti, envisioned the movie to bring to life a staggeringly insightful yet unfinished memoir by the great “Bard of Harlem,” James Baldwin. What’s unusual (and brilliant) is that Peck created not a documentary about Baldwin and his “Remember This House” manuscript, but a film that uses Baldwin’s writings as narration in telling the author’s original story.
With the blessing of the James Baldwin estate, Peck set about to make a movie version of the venerable author’s memoir. Samuel L. Jackson, superb as the narrating voice of Baldwin—in Baldwin’s words—explains that his book meant to collide his experiences and relationships with three of his murdered friends: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and anti-segregationist Medgar Evers. The director includes Baldwin more in the first-person story—via vintage interviews and photos—than the author himself would likely have, but it’s absolutely to the benefit of this more-important-than-ever film.
Peck succeeds intellectually and viscerally but, in the latter area, one wishes for a bit more. Baldwin, of course, was an intellectual and, for that matter, so were King, Evers, and Malcolm X. It requires levels of creativity and ingenuity that the director doesn’t quite achieve here to make us feel deeply the bold spirits of the four men and the terror of their times. The harrowing police-vs.-protesters footage sprinkled throughout seems meant for that purpose but, especially because of its relative ubiquity in other documentaries which include the Civil Rights Movement, for example, it manages to shock the conscience more than it does to move the soul.
Nevertheless, Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is a monumental triumph. Though the director doesn’t elaborate on them specifically, it’s fascinating to hear and see, repeatedly throughout the film, the most important words on the path towards racial harmony and success for the American experiment: “integration” vs. “segregation.” The phrase “Love thy neighbor” is also crucial but, first, people of dissimilar race must BE thy neighbor.
As you look at an archival photograph of a Southerner raising a sign that parrots racist Alabama governor George Wallace’s proclamation “Segregation Forever,” think about your own neighborhood. Think about the schools in your city or town. If they’re like most others across the United States, they’re more segregated than ever. The call of the ignorant White man in the circa 1963 photo has been heeded! America today honors George Corley Wallace’s vile vision.
The fierce fear of an integrated America must be overcome. We have a choice today: fully integrated neighborhoods and schools (the call of MLK and others for over 50 years, tragically ignored by most) or the completion of America’s demise and the utter obliteration of our nation.
So, in 2017, it’s difficult to imagine a better way in which to engage with James Baldwin’s works than “I Am Not Your Negro.” Peck’s rendering of Baldwin’s vision, with its clarity and urgency, also ranks as a top tool with which to deconstruct the false narratives of inevitable racism.
In today’s tumultuous social climate, one can’t help but feel gratitude for the cinema. To the same degree that the political psychopaths have fanned the flames of hate for their own benefit, independent film has become a welcoming, courageous refuge for truth. It’s an encouraging thought that real healing for a United States of America “on the brink of spiritual death,” to borrow Dr. King’s words, is as readily available as mindfully experiencing “Selma” (2014), “Moonlight” (2016), and “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on art house and indie for Punch Drunk Movies. He feels that Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyer’s Club” , “Wild” ) is highly overrated, and that David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche” , “Joe” ) is highly underrated.