I’ll confess, up front, to being largely unaware of James Baldwin before watching I Am Not Your Negro, a fascinating and powerful documentary by Raoul Peck. Oh, of course I knew the three major names around which Baldwin’s unfinished book – which forms the basis for this documentary – revolves; I knew how the dichotomy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is used for so many to represent the polar opposite approaches to race relations in America. And of course, I knew the tragedy of Medgar Evers, and the pain that followed.
But Baldwin was unfamiliar to me, and after watching I Am Not Your Negro, I regret that very much. Anchored entirely by Baldwin’s words – sometimes recorded as he spoke, but generally narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in a world-weary, exhausted tone whose power never diminishes – the documentary takes, as its starting point, Baldwin’s unfinished novel about those three iconic figures in American race relations. But in Peck’s skilled hands, I Am Not Your Negro becomes something else, like listening to Baldwin talk about his life, his observations, and his feelings on America for an hour and half. And given that Baldwin is incredibly insightful, intelligent, compelling, and effective as a speaker, that’s a pretty incredible way to spend an hour and a half of time. Indeed, there’s little way to come away from I Am Not Your Negro unimpressed with Baldwin’s thoughtful approach to the world, and the accuracy of so much of what he says.
Nor does it hurt that so much applies still today. Peck skillfully ties Baldwin’s words to modern events, using images of Ferguson, Obama, Trayvon Martin, and other modern touchstones to draw the connections more obviously when needed. Other times, he’s willing to sit back and let the audience realize the connections for themselves; for instance, when you hear another academic lecturing Baldwin on being so “obsessed” with color, you can’t help but feel echoes of every “All Lives Matter” activist who’s ever spoken.
But Baldwin is fascinating, no matter what he’s talking about. From commentary on pop culture and films to politics, from his first meeting with Malcolm X to his memories of the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, Baldwin’s prose and voice are inimitable, evoking emotion and senses for things I’ve never experienced, and conveying far more effectively than I could have imagined his ideas. He’s matched, it must be said, by Jackson’s incredible narration; while Jackson is known for his bluster and anger, his quiet, weary voice here speaks wonders, immersing you in Baldwin’s contemplative, thoughtful prose and evoking the pain that he so often writes of.
But more than anything else, I Am Not Your Negro is a great film for the way it addresses directly, without flinching, issues of race in this country – issues that we’re still dealing with, and still running away from. Baldwin is never less than honest, and his perceptions are so accurate as to be painful. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” he says at one point, “and it is not a pretty story.” That is a painfully accurate quote, and one that makes this film and its words every bit as important and trenchant as they were when they were first written. I Am Not Your Negro will hurt you, will make you question yourself, will make you think, and will make you feel empathy for people you truly may be unable to understand – and for those reasons, and so many more, it’s the kind of film that I wish I could force people to watch.