One of the many Oscar-nominated films in theaters right now is the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a kind of personal history of the American black experience, as told by the late writer James Baldwin in an unfinished book he was writing when he died in 1987. As is explained in the film’s introduction, Baldwin told his agent in 1979 that he would be writing “Remember This House,” a first-person account of the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all friends of Baldwin, whose deaths shaped his perception of the civil rights struggle in earth-shifting ways. But when Baldwin himself died, he had completed only 30 pages of the book, which director Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Murder in Pacot) has transformed and shaped into an electric, visual version of what Baldwin was aiming to accomplish.
Not exactly a biopic—although it certainly tracks the life and career of Baldwin—the film pushes Baldwin’s writings and speeches forward into the present day, showing that his beliefs could have been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement or the push to have more black films recognized at the Academy Awards, all through the eyes of a man writing about his influential friends (a wonderfully subdued Samuel L. Jackson supplies Baldwin’s voice when we hear excerpts from the book). Hopefully with I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s words and ideas will be introduced to younger generations who may not realize that the great writer had as clear a sense of race relations in America as any politician or great thinker today.
Although it’s not directly addressed in the film, some of Baldwin’s words also ring true for the gay community (of which he was a proud member), making the significance of the film all the more palpable. We get clips of him on various talk shows, deflecting the barely veiled prejudicial questions being thrown at him, including some by noted liberal host Dick Cavett. Baldwin is often quite negative about his hopes for the future of black America, and with good reason, especially in light of the murder of his three friends, and likely other, less famous acquaintances.
The film does not go deeply into Baldwin’s other writings or probe especially deeply into parts of his life that aren’t relevant to this topic. Yet we still feel like we leave the film knowing a great deal about him that perhaps we didn’t before. Director Peck seems less interested in profiling Baldwin’s life story than he does going deep into his mind and getting to the things that he contemplated the most. He wasn’t afraid of the more violent forms of racist behavior; he was far more concerned with being thought of as less than, because such thoughts could lead to something much worse by adding a layer of shame and feeling unnoticed in generations of black men and women. He was thinking of the big psychological picture while the rest of the Civil Rights movement focused on specifics like integration and voting rights. Simply put, I Am Not Your Negro is essential viewing for all Americans.
The film opens today at AMC River East 21.