Director: Raoul Peck
Cast: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
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“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” In 1987, American writer James Baldwin passed away with one work left unfinished: Remember This House. The book planned to tell the story of America through the lives of three men: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. They had three things in common: they all knew him, they were all black, and they were all assassinated because of their race.
Fast forward to 2017 and the manuscript is still unfinished, but its remains are exhumed with a fiery urgency by I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that makes the text sound like it was written only last week. That’s testament to the film and the raw power of Baldwin’s work, as well as a damning indictment of modern society.
Director Raoul Peck does a phenomenal job of picking up the paragraphs from Baldwin’s work and turning them into riveting, absorbing, alarming cinema. From Baldwin’s pitch for the project to speeches made by these iconic civil rights figures, there are no talking heads here; everything we hear off-screen was said by James himself, turning his remarks on the page into a profound narration of history. The result is closer to a visual poem than a conventional biopic. It couldn’t be more different to OJ: Made in America, which trumped I Am Not Your Negro to the Best Documentary Oscar in 2017, but they are companion pieces in the most unlikely and inevitable sense, both equally essential viewing.
Giving a voice to Baldwin’s narration, Samuel L. Jackson is unrecognisable, delivering a soft, nuanced voice-over in evocative and hushed tones, yet bursting with intensity and passion; despite never been on camera, it’s one of the best performances of his career. Peck’s production team, meanwhile, skillfully, seamlessly cut that narration with powerful musical choices, excerpts from history, stitching together modern news footage of Ferguson and Barack Obama, as well as archive clips of Baldwin and his subjects addressing crowds or answering questions in TV interviews.
There are intimate, revealing moments of personal experience, as Baldwin recalls how, even when Sidney Poitier starred in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, there were still no black people on screen that he could recognise as resembling those in real life. But as we zoom out across history, every fresh clip provides a gut-punching reminder that what we’re hearing was written years before half of these events occurred and remains prescient. That might sound like a triumph of sorts, but there’s no sense of achievement here; declarations of “I told you so” would imply some kind of victory, but the story of black America is one of gradual steps of progress against a legacy of loss and failure that is so large it’s often perversely invisible to wider society. Confronting and understanding that failure of basic human equality is crucial to being able to change it. I Am Not a Negro was made before 2017, but the presence of President Donald Trump off-screen for anyone watching it now only makes it more devastatingly potent.
At once a soulful biopic and a rallying cry, I Am Not a Negro is a tapestry of a determined struggle that hasn’t stopped, one that’s packed with vital observations for people the world over. While the film lucidly dissects the gap between black and white experiences of America, the movie even manages to take the time and effort to understand where white America’s prejudice came from. “I am a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it’s because you need it,” explains Baldwin in a speech near the film’s close. “You, the white people, invented him.”
In 1987, American writer James Baldwin passed away. This masterpiece makes sure his timeless insight lives on, in the hope that one day it will stop to be timeless. “You’ve got to find out why,” Baldwin warns. “The future of the country depends on whether you can answer that question.” 30 years and one black US President later and we’re still waiting for an answer.
I Am Not Your Negro is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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