The struggles of African Americans in a country that prides itself in being the land of the free forms the basis of director Raoul Peck’s incendiary documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Based on a proposed book project by the celebrated writer, James Baldwin, that would have told the history of race through the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medger Evers, Peck’s film connects the dots from the early struggles of civil rights up to the current Black Lives Matter movement. It’s an astonishing achievement that offers no easy answers but much food for thought in the interim.
Peck’s choice as to how to tell his story is quite unique. In giving audiences a history of our country’s troubled relationship with race, Peck has chosen to use the film as a way to finish the book that Baldwin never got around to completing. He simply envisions the project that Baldwin had in mind and, using excellently chosen archival footage, weaves together a tapestry on film that’s certainly disturbing but also very illuminating. At the screening I attended several audience members winced at various times during the film. That’s the kind of effect that the film has on you regardless of your frame of mind going into it.
Throughout the film we see lots of footage of the real James Baldwin, lecturing, debating and sometimes just commenting on the way he sees things. Samuel L. Jackson provides the voiceover narration for passages from Baldwin’s writings that serve as the underpinning for the provoking imagery onscreen.
At times, I Am Not Your Negro is an undeniably depressing experience in spite of Peck’s undeniable gifts as a documentary filmmaker. It pulls no punches and demands your attention. It offers no easy answers but then again the best documentary films rarely do, offering instead to show things simply as they exist. This is that kind of film.
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Photo: I Am Not Your Negro based on James Baldwin’s work (center)