Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck
By Belle McIntyre
There is something surreal about the appearance of such a profoundly literate look at racism and the experience of blackness in America through the eyes of one of the most revered black intellectuals in the context of our new reality - Trump Land. It seemed as if the Obama years had moved us forward, if not quite to a “post-racism” era - at least to a less racist era. And in the last few years there has been such a proliferation of brilliant feature and documentary films which deal with our troubled history of race relations - Ava DuVernay’s compelling and thoroughly-researched 13TH, Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Birth of a Nation, Hidden Figures, The Butler, Moonlight. All well received by wide audiences and several with nominations for Academy Awards this year. I saw both 13TH and I Am Not Your Negro in the week after Trump’s election and in the Q & A afterward both directors were so non-plussed by the shock of the election that they were unable to answer the question of where did they see the country going from here. No one knew what to think.
Director, Raoul Peck has done something very original. Based on notes, letters and early unfinished writings of James Baldwin (1924 - 1987) about the death of three of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcom X. He has compiled live footage of Baldwin speaking, giving readings and interviews as well as sections of the written work being read by Samuel L. Jackson. The textured richness of all of these elements is both beautiful and moving and the words, as read by Jackson, wash over you like music. It is both historical and highly personal. The pain and outrage is clear but never insistent. It is so immediate that it feels like yesterday. And consider this - James Baldwin died in in 1987 and this still feels timely.
Raoul Peck is a masterful filmmaker and a passionate human rights activist. Born in Haiti, to highly educated parents, they were forced to flee and moved to Congo, another troubled country. He made several films about Haiti and a highly-acclaimed film about Patrice Lumumba. He has created an artistic documentary about one of the more complex African-American literary figures which provides a deeply personal look at our tortured racial history and a splendid introduction to the writing of the great James Baldwin. I could not recommend it more.