While it skirts over many of the details of James Baldwin’s life, one might call Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” an engrossing intellectual biography of the great African-American writer set within the context of a broader sketch of the black experience in America.
The centerpiece of the documentary is Baldwin’s thirty-page introduction to a proposed book on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom had been assassinated during the tumultuous sixties. Read by Samuel L. Jackson, the text treats of Baldwin’s personal connection to each man, but it ranges widely, offering observations about the treatment blacks endured from the period of slavery through the eighties (Baldwin died in 1987). Peck accompanies the words with beautifully-chosen collages of archival footage illuminating Baldwin’s thoughts as well as clips from movies, ranging from “King Kong” to “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” to illustrate his points. He and editor Alexandra Strauss also periodically intercut excerpts from the writer’s potent appearances on television programs like the Dick Cavett Show (where he challenges liberal voices that might appear supportive but come across as mushy and patronizing) and from an extraordinary appearance by him at Cambridge University.
But the film doesn’t restrict itself to the period of Baldwin’s own life. Peck emphasizes the pertinence of the stinging criticism that he delivers about America’s attitudes on racial matters to the present, by adding visual cuts to Trayvon Martin and Ferguson to the montages he constructs. “I Am Not Your Negro” makes it clear that the reality Baldwin so brilliantly eviscerated is not a thing of the past, but a continuing stain on the country’s moral and legal character. With the elevation of a man who has given exposure to white supremacists to an important post in the White House, it seems, in fact, to be getting no better than when—as Peck shows—J. Edgar Hoover targeted Baldwin, suggesting that his rumored homosexuality could be used against him (an ironic tack indeed, given what is now known about the powerful FBI Director).
What makes Peck’s film so remarkable—and so important—is how he has used Baldwin’s life and work as a means of investigating the implications of what has been called American’s original sin. Passionate yet incisive, moving yet clear-sighted, Peck’s impressionistic documentary offers a salutary reminder of how Baldwin so compellingly forced–and indeed still forces–his countrymen to confront racism in their society, while also showing how deeply the recognition of that racism impacted his personal experience.