“The people, in general, cannot bear very much reality. They prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their existence.”
In Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, that line is said by author/civil rights activist/sometimes narrator James Baldwin. A variation on the famous quote by T.S. Eliot, it’s a line that gathers in the back of the mind as one watches this extraordinary new film about Baldwin’s intertwined existence with the struggles of the civil rights movement. Here is a film that eschews easy answers while presenting an intimate story framed against the cosmic struggle of a nation fighting itself. I hesitate to call it a documentary. It should be a required history lesson.
Formed by director Peck from the unfinished draft of writings by James Baldwin entitled “Remember This House,” I Am Not Your Negro unmistakably channels the voice and attitude of its author. Elegantly loquacious and incisively smart about how he says things, the film intersperses photos and videos of Baldwin and his immersion into the civil rights story in the late 50’s after returning from living in Paris due to his disillusion with American Jim Crow tactics.
Becoming friends with all the key players, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, Baldwin provides a front row recollection of this time, stirring up so many feelings, emotions and mundane historical suggestions that it’s one of the most heartfelt memoirs I can imagine.
In fact, its the deaths of these three historical giants that I Am Not Your Negro hinges its loose three act structure around. More than a study of hatred or indifference towards those fighting against the advances of civil rights, the film turns contemplative such as when Baldwin explains how he first heard about the death of his friend Medgar Evers. Peck cuts to a resplendent sky and sun setting beyond a row of Puerto Rican palm trees. It’s where Baldwin was at the time. Focusing not on the corporeal, the film instead chooses to expand on the idea that Evers’ spirit and legacy will pervade every aspect of the ongoing movement. Moments like these are casual but extremely moving in I Am Not Your Negro.
Outside of these personal interactions, the film also gives an arc to Baldwin’s own place within the movement. His appearance on The Dick Cavett Show or excerpts from his highly persuasive debate against William F. Buckley in 1965 are intellect-in-motion and cement his place as one of the preeminent thinkers of his time. If nothing else, I Am Not Your Negro will inspire one to fall down the rabbit hole of online videos and Baldwin’s memorizing rhythm of speaking and the thoughts that follow.
Poetic in scope and personal in tone (including intermittent voiceovers by Samuel L. Jackson), I Am Not Your Negro certainly doesn’t shy away from the truthful recreation of our existence. There are times for cute diversions, and this isn’t it. Now, more than ever, we need hard truths and unobstructed viewpoints, which is exactly what the film gives us. If only more would listen.
I Am Not Your Negro opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, February at the Dallas Angelika.