Critically lauded upon its American release in late 2016, I Am Not Your Negro, is an essayistic documentary about the eruption of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, as told through the eyes of the poetic and influential African American writer James Baldwin.
The film rolls in like a continuous wave of smoke from a fire that’s unseen. Baldwin speaks with anger and clarity in a TV interview as a cigarette burns somewhere off camera. We enter a world in which the momentum for civil rights is building, but the main battle is yet to be fought. The air is thick with talk and fear, but the sound of jazz lingers. Baldwin’s eyes look hopeful if tired. Such interviews punctuate the film, as director Raoul Peck navigates the various segments of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Each part is anchored by a theme that adds another layer to a collage of pivotal public events and autobiographical moments that eventually creates a rich sense of that era, and its shocking parallels to present-day America.
James Baldwin at home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 6 November 1979. Photo by Ralph Gatty.
This approach might have been indelicately handled by a different director, with a danger that the structure and style could suffocate the heart of the story, but Peck’s artful arrangement of archival footage, along with the mellifluous voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson as Baldwin, unites the film from start to end. Peck’s background as a political figure in the Caribbean nation of Haiti, and experience making socio-political documentaries and biographical features (including 2000’s Lumumba), no doubt informs the way he seamlessly integrates broader historical commentary with personal, emotional stories.
“Peck elevates ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ beyond a conventional documentary narrative, by paralleling the lives and deaths of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jnr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X with clips from glossy old movies.”
Peck elevates I Am Not Your Negro beyond a conventional documentary narrative, by paralleling the lives and deaths of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jnr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X with clips from glossy old movies. Every edit is a rhythmic reaction to a beat in the soundtrack, or a shift in the manuscript’s tone. For both Baldwin and Peck, the arts are a breathing parallel of political ideologies and the social landscape in which they find themselves, especially when covering topics as historically loaded as race. The cinematic history here charts the social consciousness of Hollywood from outwardly racist portrayals of African Americans as servants and comic relief in the 1930s, to Stanley Kramer’s sentimental but problematic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Kramer’s use of the iconic actor Sidney Poitier is singled out by Baldwin as an example of the historic desexualisation of black men in American media. Despite Poitier being subconsciously recognised as “a sex symbol”, Baldwin argues that Hollywood sidelined his sexuality, and reduced him (and many others) to a distilled representation of African American people, without individual status or agency.
Anti-integration rally in Little Rock in “I Am Not Your Negro”.
Once the key civil rights leaders have fallen, the ugly white supremacy of Birmingham is revealed—as it was in Ferguson, Los Angeles, and the list goes on. And as Baldwin makes his final impassioned remarks, you are left dizzy with the pain and the determination of these women and men who led the civil rights movement in America.
The flashes of graphic violence against African Americans are deeply troubling and shameful, and hard for me, as a white Australian person to comment on or understand. I haven’t been persecuted for my race, and I have not experienced that kind of oppression or segregation. But having racial prejudice so bluntly shown gives you a micro insight into a world that is often abstracted by the media for easier digestion.
“As grim as this documentary might be at times, Peck has imbued ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ with poetic warmth through the interplay of music, speech, and Baldwin’s words, which celebrate the strength of African American society in a downtrodden situation.”
As grim as this documentary might be at times, Peck has imbued I Am Not Your Negro with poetic warmth through the interplay of music, speech, and Baldwin’s words, which celebrate the strength of African American society in a downtrodden situation. Through this window into the rich cultural life of black America, Ray Charles plays piano with unrestricted charisma, and Sidney Poitier really is a sex symbol, despite the coyness of those selected Stanley Kramer scenes. And Harlem is the epicentre of New York, with food and street style unlike anywhere else in the world. In the final minutes, Peck offers a vision of Barack Obama’s inauguration, followed by Baldwin’s famous words “The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country”. The nation’s cultural prosperity and its diverse peoples remain inextricably linked, even if a large portion of white America remains wilfully blind.