Director: Raoul Peck Narrated By: Samuel L. Jackson Running Time: 95 minutes
“The story of the negro in America is the story of America” is the central message of I Am Not Your Negro, the kind of message white people in the United States have always been determined to ignore. As directed by the activist Raoul Peck, the words of the writer and social critic James Baldwin are as difficult to ignore as possible, simply but firmly putting the black people of the United States in the forefront of the nation’s history where they belong.
The documentary is a resurrection of sorts of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, a memoir of his personal recollections of the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Their work was similarly left unfinished, no matter how much their endeavours may have been sanitised and reframed in the decades since, it was ended not through completion but through each of their murders. Using the gravelly narration of Samuel L. Jackson to bring back Baldwin’s words, the message is clear: this work is not yet finished. The campaigns of current groups like Black Lives Matter is shown through the lens of the past, linking the two and illuminating how strongly black struggles are tied into American history.
Much like Ava DuVernay’s documentary last year The 13th, Peck’s approach to grave subject matter is handled seriously, but with an arresting energy. Where one of the main tools of The 13th in doing this was its music, I Am Not Your Negro pairs its footage of Evers, X, King and Baldwin with various clips of Hollywood films throughout history, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin through to the films of Sidney Poitier. With Hollywood culture doing so much to influence American history, the clips are very revealing of white people’s ignorance and denial of black people’s place in the country. They’re bug-eyed, they’re sexless, they’re more often than not absent altogether. The presenation is convincing and damning, white people need reassurance and reframing of their oppression. Something that’s hard to deny when even now, Oscar-nominated films are telling the stories of African Americans and wedging in feel-good elements that never happened to ease white guilt. Through these clips and the frank depiction of the fates of Evers, X and King, Peck seizes back control of the narrative.
Baldwin’s words are framed convincingly. Jackson’s stellar narration is an important factor here, adding weight and additional hindsight to the writings in Remember This House. But it’s also through Baldwin himself; shown being interviewed on the Dick Cavett show and speaking at a Cambridge University Debate, the real Baldwin is an electrically compelling speaker. Listening to him in moments like these would have made for a quality documentary on their own, but Peck’s approach is comprehensive, elevating Baldwin and making his case all the easier to agree with. In old photographs, racist white people surround not only adult civil rights campaigners, but even people like Elizabeth Eckford, a teenager just trying to go to school. There’s anger in some of those white faces, but also gurning, grinning, smug superiority. For people like this the very idea of marginalised groups trying to access what they’ve been denied is amusing, because it’s so incongrous. People like this, who sneer at black people in America and other oppressed groups have not gone away and they will always attempt to exert control, through mockery, erasure, legal constrictions and violence. With firm hands and loud voices, I Am Not Your Negro refutes that control. It is the kind of film that’s essential to see and support.(4.5 / 5)