(This piece is the Movie Essential in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.)
We often celebrate the best films and filmmakers for taking a familiar experience like movie-going—an experience we think we know and understand well—and giving us something that feels surprisingly new. Movies that make us fall in love with movies again are rare, and I’d suggest that it’s even rarer that such a sensation comes from a documentary. But Raoul Peck tasked himself with making a film about one of America’s greatest sons, James Baldwin, and pulled off quite a feat with I Am Not Your Negro. Peck (who previously directed Lumumba and Sometimes in April) resists some of the most common approaches to documentary story-telling, and the result is an incredibly intimate experience with an icon.
Peck focuses on Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening).
Peck could have done little else besides giving us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. After all, what other voice could you possibly want to hear after Baldwin, speaking of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar, declares in a letter to his literary agent, “I want these three lives to bang against each other.” Or, I should say, what other words could you want to hear—it’s easy to forget that the voice you’re hearing read these words is Samuel L. Jackson’s. But Jackson performs his role as narrator beautifully; most viewers won’t even know it’s him, and won’t care either way because the film (along with Jackson) does the work of centralizing Baldwin’s messages, his enormous energy and his inimitable style.
Baldwin was concerned with countless issues that may or may not have been centered on race, and those of us hoping for a film that covered his work against homophobia, as well as his views on religion, will have to wait for another film. Peck streamlines here, and although there is mention of Baldwin’s sexuality (in a letter from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover), the focus is on Baldwin’s distinctive perspective on race in America.
In the film’s strongest moments, we veer away from Baldwin slightly, to sit with some of the acclaimed movies and TV shows of his time (including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), which he criticized with great vigor. These are powerful scenes because they allow us to not only hear Baldwin’s message—but to see it for ourselves. Film is propaganda, and through Baldwin’s keen eye, we experience a feeling that is at once thrilling and discomfiting for movie lovers. I Am Not Your Negro is a celebration of the power of cinema, and an indictment against Hollywood’s insistence on stories that speak to the desires of a white population molded by white supremacist ideals. Supremacy, Baldwin and Peck remind us, comes in many forms, including beloved, fictional white heroes and fictional black heroes who exist to reassure white movie-goers that black people do not despise them.
If there’s any misstep in the film, it may be the inclusion of contemporary footage showcasing acts of resistance in the face of the very same brutality Baldwin speaks of throughout I Am Not Your Negro. There is that sensation of being pulled out of Baldwin’s world for a moment, and it feels unnecessary and even redundant for those of us who were already making the connections, who have already been re-reading Baldwin every time a black man, woman or child is murdered by the police. But I can’t begrudge Peck’s choice, because there are, sadly, far too many people who might not draw such conclusions otherwise—people who need to be clearly told that the notion of “progress” must be interrogated when a film about James Baldwin’s work feels timely in 2017.
And so this is not a film necessarily meant to inspire hope. One of the most devastating things one might realize when watching this film is that the many questions Baldwin posed to white America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—questions which so brilliantly and succinctly got at the root of America’s race problems—remain wholly unanswered. In hearing Baldwin ask white America why it “needed a nigger,” and in hearing him ask white folks why they’ve no idea what’s happening to black people in the next town over, we receive great clarity in Peck’s mission. There’s no need to wonder why he chose this subject, at this time, for his film. One only wonders when a film like this will feel like it belongs to the past. Because right now, I Am Not Your Negro might very well be the most politically and socially relevant film of the moment.