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I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary centered around the deaths of three civil rights heroes—Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—told through the words of a fourth, author James Baldwin. Baldwin is gone, too, of course (he died in 1987 at the relatively ripe age of 63), but that’s easy to forget when watching Raoul Peck’s urgent and boldly creative film. His words, read by Samuel L. Jackson in voice-over narration, guide us through a montage of images of violence that span from the Civil Rights Era to present-day Ferguson. Baldwin is the voice of our present as well as our past, which painfully shows just how little has changed.
His mission—and that of the film—was to share the realities of black America with the rest of the world, an effort still ongoing. His plain, efficient language serves as a lighting bolt of empathy. “White people are shocked at Birmingham,” Baldwin says, describing the effort to integrate schools in Alabama. “Black people are not.” Later, we see Robert F. Kennedy’s optimistic, realistic prediction that America will have a black president by the early 21st century, while Baldwin describes the reaction of his community as one of “bitterness” and “disgust.”
Perhaps most prescient is Baldwin’s analysis of pop culture in both reflecting and affecting race relations in America. “Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality,” Baldwin wrote, echoing the words of poet T.S. Eliot. I Am Not Your Negro is about the spinning coin of reality and fantasy, how they inform each other, and how fantasy, primarily film, can both build up and tear down the reality it purports to describe. He constructively critiques the way Sidney Poitier was used as both a salve and a savior in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, and also reflects on the destructive black stereotypes used in early cinema. “It’s possible,” he says, “that their comic bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning the terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed.”
Such a description makes an interesting contrast to the work of Samuel L. Jackson here, who employs hushed, weary tones to read Baldwin’s verse, a great leap from the timbre we associate with him. We know him yelling about “furious anger” in Pulp Fiction. We know him screaming about the motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane. Here, Peck steeply inverts Jackson’s outward rage, constricting his throat, and forcing us to listen more closely.
And what do we hear? Peck and Baldwin’s joint vision is a coherent and powerful call to action. The film’s framing device is a letter Baldwin wrote to his editor, pitching a now-unfinished novel that would tell of his own eventual journey through the American South. After being born in the North, rising to prominence on the national stage, and living in self-imposed exile in Paris, Baldwin felt he had to witness the struggle of his people. His story—this story—will resonate with whites, or people of any privilege, who are unsure whether they belong in the fight.
I Am Not Your Negro is told with riveting artistry, which ends up being both a strength and a weakness. Weaving these connected elements into a single vision, Peck ends up mesmerizing the audience more than rousing them. I left dazed, as if coming down off a powerful drug, and hardly in a fighting mood. Then again, I Am Not Your Negro aims to provoke thought, not to promote action. Perhaps it is best when left to Baldwin’s own words, including these: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I Am Not Your Negro opens Friday at E Street Cinema.