James Baldwin is one of the most eloquent voices of the American civil rights movement. A novelist and poet, he wrote and spoke much about the suffering and subjugation of black Americans at the hands of their white countrymen. His last book was never finished, it was to be a recounting of the lives of his three close friends. Those friends were Medgar Evans, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
I Am Not Your Negro is directed by Raoul Peck, and written using James Baldwin’s notes for his final book, as well as many of his letters and essays. Baldwin’s writing is given a voice by Samuel L Jackson, in what can only be described as a sublime performance, the writing comes to life in his hands. The film looks at the three men’s lives, as well as Baldwin’s himself. It looks back to the first racist depictions of black people in early cinema, and forward to the explosive scenes played out on the streets of Ferguson.
Chapter heads break the documentary down into parts, as in Baldwin’s book. Each section looks at a different aspect of the three famous civil rights leaders, and at the culture in America that created such a vicious and often brutal climate for the black population. It is only 90 minutes long, but runs at a brisk pace, and manages to cover more than many full documentary series. It is a treatise on race relations, a cry for sanity, and a harrowing warning about the future.
Stock footage is used of interviews and speeches with Baldwin, and to paint intimate portraits of Malcom X, Medgar Evans, and Martin Luther King Jr. The three are shown as real people, separated from the mythologized versions of themselves, but fully aware of the fame and notoriety they courted. They are shown as people whose beliefs changed and matured over time, and we are shown how their unique angles on race relations affected America.
Peck uses both archive and modern footage of snippets from American media to illustrate many of Baldwin’s points. Often the effect is that we see, depressingly, how little attitudes have changed, and we are reminded of how blatant racist attitudes were in the past. A film tells marketers in the 50s how large the ‘negro market’ is, and how to ‘sell to negroes’. It all makes for uncomfortable watching, as it should.
I Am Not Your Negro achieves an emotional resonance that is rare in documentaries. The images and stories told made the cinema I was in, myself included, wince and gasp at the prejudice put on exhibition.
But the film is more than just an emotional piece, it is a testament to the strength of those who stood up for themselves against such imposing bigotry. It makes a heart-wrenching plea to the animosity showed by the white population. People who were against segregation and discrimination, but who would not take to the streets, or even raise their voice to change it.
It isn’t often that a documentary has such a powerful message, told so eloquently. I Am Not Your Negro is one of the best documentaries of the past few years. But, even more than that, it transcends the usual documentary mould and becomes something truly special that must be seen, and cannot be ignored.