To review Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” feels, in many ways, like gilding the lily: Every word we hear in this Oscar-nominated documentary comes from the great novelist and essayist James Baldwin, and his prose remains so vital, so beautiful, so brutal in the 21st century that there seems little point adding to it.
To review “I Am Not Your Negro,” then, is to urge you to see an extraordinary document; it’s a great work of cinema, yes, but it also addresses the past and the present and the future of this country in a way that every citizen worthy of the name should experience, reflect and discuss.
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” That quotation from Baldwin could be the tagline for the film. And while Peck’s work brims over with anger and horror, it is also a work of sweeping poetry. This story still isn’t pretty, but it’s delivered in a captivating and gorgeous manner.
In 1979, Baldwin wrote his agent with an idea for a book called “Remember This House,” which would examine the civil rights struggle in America through Baldwin’s friendships with three key activists, all assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That book was never completed, but Baldwin’s letters form the crux of the film. (Bad news for writers everywhere: Not only will most of us never write a book as great as one of Baldwin’s, but we apparently also will never write a book proposal as good, either.)
Samuel L. Jackson narrates from Baldwin’s letters and other writings, and it’s one of the actor’s greatest performances: He never attempts to imitate Baldwin’s singular voice, but he does mirror the rhythms and the cadences of his speech, so that when Peck intercuts between Jackson’s narration and clips of Baldwin speaking on television or to audiences, it’s never an awkward juxtaposition.
Peck visually traverses the line of history, from the slave trade to #BlackLivesMatter, in similar fashion. Centuries apart, the undeniable connection of past and present is front and center, even as the film contains no contemporary interviews or narration. Baldwin’s still-relevant words calmly excoriate America’s white-invented “Negro Problem” as footage of vintage jeering protestors outside an integrated school and photographs of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice collapse the passage of time into one ongoing horrific moment.
“I Am Not Your Negro” currently sits alongside “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America” among this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary, and it’s worth noting that all three extraordinary films are complementary yet never redundant. There is enough to say about race and racism in America that three movies are but a drop in the bucket on the subject; we are lucky to live at a time when all three of these films can be made, and we are cursed to live at a time when all three of these films had to be made.
Peck’s work is both sad and stirring; it throws down a gauntlet that asks society to do better when it comes to dealing the black experience in this country. (It also, one hopes, challenges another filmmaker to make another work that takes as moving a view of Baldwin’s life as a gay man in the 20th century.)
No movie is going to fix the world, but films like “I Am Not Your Negro” demand accountability from its audience, both on a personal level and as a community of human beings.