Twitter Facebook Instagram Google+ Tumblr YouTube E-Mail WhatsApp Sign In Check Close snapchat
Search
Exit Clear

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a Searing Portrait of James Baldwin and America Itself

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a Searing Portrait of James Baldwin and America Itself: Magnolia Pictures

Magnolia Pictures

A convincing argument could be made that in these increasingly ugly and divisive days, with white nationalism rearing its head around the globe and the racial divide as wide as ever, many of the most timely, resonant and necessary movies are documentaries: Think of Ezra Edelman’s lacerating O.J.: Made in America or Ana DuVernay’s eye-opening 13th. And now there’s another powerful case in point. Haiti-born director Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April) spent over six years creating this electrifying, don’t-miss film inspired by the 30 existing pages of notes for James Baldwin’s final, uncompleted book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s concept for the ambitious and highly personal book had been to tell the story of being African-American in America as refracted through the experiences of his close friends and associates Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., each a major Black civil rights leader and each of whom was assassinated. Peck, with vision, great filmmaking know-how and admirable discipline, has taken Baldwin’s concept as a point of departure and extended it from the height of the civil rights movement right up to the minute with stunning contemporary examples of police brutality and disruption of protests. The result is not just sobering; it’s devastating. 

Given carte blanche by the Baldwin estate, Peck uses bits of material from virtually all of the prolific poet-novelist’s letters and published works as almost the only words on the soundtrack. The director and editor Alexandra Strauss handpick footage from Baldwin’s university speeches and a typically outspoken and extraordinarily insightful TV appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. The movie occasionally flash-forwards Baldwin’s commentaries by juxtaposing them against footage of President Obama’s inauguration and unrest at Ferguson—not just to make the point of the writer’s powers as an oracle, but also to underline how little has changed since the 1960s. I Am Not Your Negro has an unexpected universality about it, too, especially when Baldwin, a lifelong movie lover who nearly wrote a Malcolm X screenplay, weighs in on the cultural impact of movie stars including John Wayne, Sidney Poitier and Doris Day. 

Instead of a gallery of talking heads, it’s Samuel L. Jackson who voices the comments of the irreplaceably cogent Baldwin, who died in 1987. Make no mistake: This isn’t narration. It’s Jackson giving one hell of a performance—deliberate, melancholy, understated and nailing Baldwin’s great humor, frustration, sorrow and hopefulness without once having to raise his voice. It’s right up there with the best work Jackson’s ever done.

Lean, intelligent and leaving you wanting more at 95 minutes, I Am Not Your Negro is a less a portrait of the the towering, fiery James Baldwin than it is a chronicle of the life of a troubled, deeply flawed nation as filtered through his piercing eyes.

I Am Not Your Negro

Playboy Social

Get the Magazine That Changed It All

Loading...