Elevating James Baldwin’s unfinished novel “Remember This House” to film, Oscar-nominated director Raoul Peck offers remarkable insight into Baldwin’s views on race, power and systemic oppression in the United States while placing the author’s thoughts into a contemporary context with his gripping documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Narrated by acclaimed actor Samuel L. Jackson, “I Am Not Your Negro” transports viewers to an unsettling time fueled by racism and civil unrest — the mid-1950s and 60s. The award-winning documentary explores Baldwin’s efforts in telling his story of the United States through the lives of revered activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Through this complex exploration, Peck’s film succeeds in examining the journey to liberation that each civil rights leader pursued as a means to demonstrate instruction, love and sacrifice for their community.
Opening with stock footage of a 1968 interview between Baldwin and former talk show host Dick Cavett, “I Am Not Your Negro” begins with Cavett asking the prolific author about optimism — or lack thereof — in Black America. “It’s not a question of what happens to the negro here, the black man here … but the real question is what’s going to happen to this country,” Baldwin answered in his conversation with the television host. Shedding instant light on Baldwin’s inquiry, the documentary shifts from Cavett’s dialogue to a compelling slideshow featuring images of African Americans engaged in Black Lives Matter protests against armed police officers as Buddy Guy’s melancholic tune “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” fittingly plays in the background.
An unapologetic social critic, Baldwin’s activism was profoundly rooted in challenging the anti-Black and anti-gay sentiments that white America adhered to during the civil rights movement. Unlike Evers, King and Malcolm X, however, the Harlem-born native did not subscribe to the beliefs of the Black Panther Party, the NAACP and the Nation of Islam, respectively, as his radical peers did. Baldwin’s refusal to align himself with these organizations stemmed from his convictions that not all white people, as King believed, were “devils” and not all religious advocates lived by the commandment “love one another, as I have loved you.” As the documentary reveals through stunning archival footage of the admired writer, Baldwin’s opposition to the NAACP resulted from his upbringing in the North where the civil rights group was “fatally entangled with Black class distinctions.”
Juxtaposing the tumultuous civil rights era with our current racial climate, “I Am Not Your Negro” provides viewers with a satisfying blend of history and present-day activism that beautifully illustrates racism and its existing effects in modern-day America. The result of this pervasive force is evidenced by police brutality and the assassinations of unarmed Black lives. During his documentary, Peck dedicates a slideshow tribute to several African Americans who lost their lives to police violence at a young age — from Tamir Rice and Cameron Tillman to Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Amir Brooks. Throughout the heart-rending homage, Baldwin is seen speaking on topics of identity and race that still ring true to today’s national discourse.
“When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here … you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world,” said Baldwin in a 1969 conversation with civil rights activist Dick Gregory. The coinciding addition of the visual tribute and Baldwin’s statement in Peck’s film delivers thought-provoking commentary on how far the United States has progressed in upholding freedom and civil rights for all — even if this progress is uncertain and debatable in light of current events.
Meriting required viewing, “I Am Not Your Negro” is a timely work of art that successfully brings James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript to life. Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, Raoul Peck’s film is a worthy contender for the prestigious honor as it delves into themes of race and power — much like Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” — under Baldwin’s celebrated genius.
As Baldwin expresses in Peck’s resounding documentary, “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
Jordan Joyner covers TV. Contact him at [email protected].