D: Raoul Peck / 93m
With: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin (archive footage)
In 1957, the writer, visionary, poet and humanist James Baldwin returned to the US having spent the last nine years living in Paris, France. He was thirty-three. Soon he was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and was touring the South giving lectures on his views on racial inequality. In six short years he had become such a well known supporter of the movement that his writings and speeches on the matter were listened to with respect on both sides of the debate. His views on the Civil Rights movement, and his ability to see the issue from both sides, arose out of his seeing first hand the effects of integration, along with his relationships with the leading players of the time. In 1979, Baldwin committed to write a book about America based on the lives of his three friends, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. He wrote just thirty pages of notes before abandoning the project, which he’d entitled Remember This House. It’s these notes, and a collection of interviews and speeches given by Baldwin over the years, as well as contemporary footage and clips from the movies, that have been brought together to form I Am Not Your Negro.
Baldwin was a natural thinker and orator, precise in his arguments and astute in his observations, and there are many moments in the movie where those attributes are given their due. An appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 sees Baldwin express his concerns for the future of the US (while an entirely uncomfortable Cavett looks as if he can’t wait for the interview to be over). It’s a short excerpt, but it shows just how much consideration Baldwin had given to the idea that things were improving for the black man in America, something that clearly worried him. His answer is far from comforting, and in many ways, is a foreshadowing of events to come, such as the Rodney King incident, or the Black Panthers. The movie expressly and explicitly reveals Baldwin’s thoughts on these matters, and particularly the way in which he felt that politics and the media were attempting to reassure the American public that progress was being made, when in truth it was stalled, held up at a point when progress could and should have been made. He was an optimist, but a realist too, and as a result his views could appear pessimistic, but Baldwin would have denied this. He’s telling his truth as he sees it, and he wants everyone to make up their own minds about the necessity for racial violence and intolerance.
Baldwin’s observations are supported by archival footage that goes back to the pre-War era, where his disdain for actors such as Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit – who essayed stereotypical black characters in movies in the Thirties and Forties – helped to enforce his beliefs about America’s racist, institutional characteristics, and the difficulty of getting an entire culture to change its way of thinking. The movie sees Baldwin chipping away at that sort of intransigence, asking uncomfortable questions, making uncomfortable statements (he refers to Gary Cooper and Doris Day as “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen”), and challenging the average white man to ask himself why he feels so threatened by the presence of the black man.
But the main focus is on the lives of his friends, three martyrs to the cause who died for their beliefs, and who in their different ways, were committed to overthrowing the institutional racism that permeated the US during the first half of the 20th century (and long before), and which they sought to eradicate through their efforts. Their methods were different, their personalities were different, but their goal was the same, and Baldwin is their chronicler, a self-confessed witness to a time when change seemed inevitable, and where Evers’ activism, King Jr’s passive ministrations, and Malcolm X’s angry dissention caused such waves amongst the white establishment that their deaths seemed almost inevitable. Baldwin’s anguish at each man’s death is relayed through his thoughts at the time, and they are poignant, studied and powerful, brief meditations on the nature of loss and the repercussions that followed. But through it all, Baldwin’s composure and his awareness of the continuing struggle ensures he has no time to be maudlin.
In assembling the various strands needed to paint such a vivid portrait of a man and his times, director Raoul Peck has succeeded in drawing together these various strands in such a judicious way that they both highlight and underline the points Baldwin makes, and reaffirm just how acute his intellect was. He was a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentator on a period of civil upheaval that is still being dissected even today, and Peck has chosen fittingly in terms of Baldwin’s presence in front of the cameras. There must have been occasions when Baldwin was more loquacious than subdued, but if he was, Peck hasn’t included those moments, and the man’s measured, heedful expressions of dismay and apprehension are given their due, and backed by archival footage that is both relevant and, on occasion, deliberately shocking. The movie paints a portrait of a time when the hopes of millions of black Americans were routinely sabotaged by the efforts of a white majority savagely defending itself from censure, and its condemnation of those tactics is absolute. And still it celebrates the resilience of the men and women who fought to improve their place and their standing in America.
Baldwin’s off-camera musings and thoughts are more than adequately expressed by Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s a measure of Jackson’s skill as a voice actor that he’s not always recognisable as Samuel L. Jackson. He doesn’t attempt to sound like Baldwin, but he does offer a knowing detachment when reciting Baldwin’s comments about himself. These comments are often full of self-doubt and muted reflection, something that gives the audience the sense that no matter how eloquent he might have been in print or on camera, Baldwin was as readily unsure of himself as anyone else might be. One thing the movie isn’t though, is unsure of itself, and it moves confidently between Baldwin’s observations on America’s tolerance for racial lassitude, and a broader history of the struggle for civil rights. It makes a number of salient points, acts as a primer for the issues involved, and serves as a reminder that the fight for equality still goes on today, and is just as important as ever.
Rating: 9/10 – a powerful and emotive subject as seen through the eyes of one of its most shrewd and capable observers, I Am Not Your Negro is an expertly assembled chronicle of a period in recent American history whose ramifications are still being felt today; succinct and incisive, Baldwin’s prose and oratory act as an entry point for a topic that can be explored in so many different ways, but what can’t be ignored is how much of what he says and reveals seems so obvious now to those of us looking back.