"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."
Based on African-American writer James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript 'Remember This House', the documentary 'I Am Not Your Negro' explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin's reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as his personal observations of American history.
James Baldwin was born in 1924 and raised in Harlem. Disillusioned and frustrated by the treatment of blacks in post-World War II America, he moved to Paris, but returned to the U.S. in 1957 to do what he could to help in the intensifying struggle for civil rights. Baldwin, although a literary giant and a close friend of many leading activists, rarely appeared at events and mass rallies, and declined membership in parties or groups such as the NAACP, Panthers and SNCC. Although he was homosexual, he rarely focused on the issue of gay rights, which would have been on the outermost fringes of the activist movement in those decades.
Haitian-born director Raoul Peck ('The Man by the Shore', 'The Young Karl Marx') received privileged access to the Baldwin archives because the family admired his work on the 1990 political thriller 'Lumumba: Death of a Prophet' and the 2000 award winning drama on the same subject, 'Lumumba'. Using narration from Samuel L. Jackson ('Kong: Skull Island', 'The Hateful Eight') to embody the spirit of Baldwin in the potent narration, the film's structure utilises rare videos and photos as well as personal writings of Baldwin, and at the same time aligning them with contemporary issues of police brutality and race relations. We see Baldwin on screen periodically throughout the movie in archival footage from his speeches, academic lectures and appearances on TV talk shows. Much of the history referenced in the film is illustrated through news footage from the 1960s and many of the points made by Baldwin and/or Peck are made through depictions of blacks and whites in movies and TV shows and commercials. This creates a mesmerising awareness of the continuity in the struggle for civil rights. The images used in conjunction with Baldwin's writing are evocative, making Baldwin's work seem like a living, breathing document.
'I Am Not Your Negro' digs into the unhealed wound of racism, prejudice and oppression unapologetically and forces us to take a hard look at what oozes out.
Intelligent editing by Sam Pollard builds a meaningful cultural bridge between the 1960s and our current decade. The soundtrack, which opens with Buddy Guy's 'Damn Right I Got the Blues' and concludes with Kendrick Lamar's 'The Blacker the Berry' in the closing credits, is fantastic.
Baldwin's words are incredibly powerful, and it was the right choice to frame the film around his writing, while also adding enough visual material and recontextualisation to update it for today and to make it into an actual film, not just a glorified audiobook. This is more than simply the story of a man looking at three men who inspired him and whose deaths caused him intense pain. 'I Am Not Your Negro' digs into the unhealed wound of racism, prejudice and oppression unapologetically and forces us to take a hard look at what oozes out.