Raoul Peck’s provocative and timely documentary I Am Not Your Negro is an incisive meditation on America’s Civil Rights Movement told through the eyes of the late novelist James Baldwin. Peck’s Oscar-nominated film focuses on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, about the lives and murders of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Baldwin, who was remarkably fortune to escape assassination himself, was friends with all three and their deaths were to have a profound effect on his life and work.
Interspersed with Baldwin’s reflections, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is footage of various civil rights demonstrations from the 1950s and 60s, together with recordings of Baldwin’s lectures, debates and TV appearances. He is an arresting, articulate figure with an incredible ability to summarise racial and cultural politics. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin once remarked. Peck underlines the continuing truth of this statement by juxtaposing past brutality – against civil-rights protesters in Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s – with more recent racism such as the violent assault of Rodney King by Los Angeles police filmed by a bystander in 1991. As Peck demonstrates, appalling inequality and racist attitudes prevail today.
In one essay, Baldwin described how mainstream cinema has helped fuel race divisions by presenting the differences between good and evil in black and white terms. Peck bring this vividly to life with scenes from popular American films dating from the 1930s. John Wayne’s cowboys, for example, were always on the side of right, and the native Indians were always the baddies – leaving the spectator to presume that they deserved to be massacred. In the 1950s, blonde bombshell Doris Day exemplified the perfect American wife while in early Hollywood films, black actors only featured as lackeys and servants serving to consolidate specific racial imagery.
Although past and current race relations are starkly drawn, Peck’s film never feels bleak. This is mainly due to Baldwin’s charismatic screen presence, his passion for reasoned argument and the power of his rhetoric. As he claimed in one television interview – “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” It’s this resolute defiance that sets the tone for Peck’s film. Baldwin died in 1987 but I Am Not Your Negro should help to introduce this great writer and social critic to new audiences.
Lucy Popescu| @lucyjpop