James Baldwin may not be as known as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, but the writer/poet/social activist is as much of a reference for the civil rights era as them. Director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro uses Baldwin’s words and activism as the starting point for a passionate documentary about America and its history of racism.
An adaptation of a book to-be that never was, Baldwin’s Remember this House, I Am Not Your Negro follows the writer’s life and the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Through his powerful words (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), archive footage of historical moments and of the man himself, Peck’s documentary is everything but an arid, neutral narration of what happened – indeed, it feels like a wake-up call, if not even a call to action.
The film works as an explanation (though not an excuse) of why black people in the US are so angry; it also shows that no matter their stance – hard action like Malcolm X or peaceful protesting like Luther King Jr – they are always in fear of their own lives for daring to be more than a doormat, and refusing to fit into the white man’s narrative. Baldwin, in his role as a witness (as opposed to an actor) of the civil rights movement, may be the perfect bridge to those who don’t understand what’s the issue in the first place – why is it not okay to wait 40 years for the first black president, why it is not okay to put black people’s struggle in the same shelf as white people’s. When people like Bobby Kennedy failed to connect with the cause, when only three years ago racial tensions exploded in Ferguson, when Baldwin fails to see his own realities mirrored on media and art, it’s hard to deny there are (still) serious problems in the way the US deals with its black population.
Beautifully edited, juxtaposing images of the American Dream against lynching and police brutality, I Am Not Your Negro is terrifying to watch in 2017, as we sense things haven’t changed as much as they should since the beginning of the civil rights movement (and may even go back to worse). With no talking heads, Jackson’s booming voice over, archive of Baldwin’s rhetoric and violent moments that manage to never be gratuitous, Raoul Peck’s delivers a must-watch documentary for this day and age, in the hopes that humanity may eventually learn from History that segregation, of any kind, is never the answer.
I am Not Your Negro will be in UK cinemas on 7th April 2017.