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‘I Am Not Your Negro’ (review)

Produced by Rémi Grellety,
Hébert Peck, Raoul Peck

Written by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Based on Remember This House
by James Baldwin

Directed by Raoul Peck
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson
Featuring James Baldwin, Dick Cavett

I Am Not Your Negro is the Oscar-nominated documentary about author and activist James Baldwin, whose books include The Fire Next Time.

It’s an impressionistic look at not only his life, but that of good friends — and Civil Rights martyrs — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The film, written and directed by Raoul Peck, assumes you know the basics of all four men going into the film: You won’t learn from this movie that Baldwin was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1963, or anything about his personal life, or that he died in 1987.

The film is strongest when Baldwin — and not just his words, as read by Samuel L. Jackson — takes center stage. Several film clips of him speaking are featured and he’s never less than powerful and riveting.

In particular, a 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show where another guest, a white professor, tried to insist that solidarity based on race was arbitrary and that feeling closer to a fellow intellectual, such as himself, made more sense. Baldwin’s eloquent putdown — in which he mentions all the institutions that don’t want him as a member is one for the ages: “You want me to risk my life … on some idealism that you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

“The story of the negro is the story of America, and it’s not a pretty story,” Baldwin wrote. His words are sadly just as true today as they were during the ‘60s. Although the terminology has changed and we elected our first black President, seeing footage of the ‘60s juxtaposed with contemporary protest images, underline how little has changed in 50 years, just as it did in the films Selma and The 13th.

Peck based the film on Baldwin’s own notes for a personal project that he never got to finish. He intended to write about not just his own life, but the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Baldwin died, he only had 30 pages of the book written.

Building from there, Peck draws on Baldwin’s other writings and public appearances, as well as ample news footage of the Civil Rights movement

It’s a fascinating, moving film, and yet I often wished for more context for some of the people and events mentioned, such as A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. When I got home from the screening, I immediately hit up Wikipedia for some essential background information I wish the movie had included.

The film also uses clips from movies — particularly Doris Day movies — and ads to represent clueless ‘60s white America in a way that quickly gets tiresome. And at times, the generic ‘60s stock footage distracts, instead of enhancing or illustrating what’s being said.

But those flaws don’t take away from the power or timelessness of Baldwin’s words, which still resonate and inspire today.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

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