*’I Am Not Your Negro’ is currently screening at film festivals including the New York International Film Festival, Hampton International Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, Middleburg Film Festival, Philadelphia International Film Festival, and Virginia Film Festival.
Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Trying to define director Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro is an exercise in futility. It’s an essay film, a cinematic rendering of an unfinished book written in archival footage, film clips, and contemporary images. It’s an elegiac, heart-wrenching story of the greatest book that James Baldwin never finished, and that Peck brilliantly completes with the author’s own words, to give voice and reality to a story that began at the inception of America and still continues to this day.
The conceit of I Am Not Your Negro is audacious in its own terms. Peck takes the notes that made up Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House as his starting point. The book was intended to weave together the stories of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin left behind thirty pages of notes and numerous letters explaining the purpose behind the book, as well as a whole wealth of finished novels, letters, and talks from his long and complex career. From this basis, Peck constructs a story that blends Baldwin’s words—performed by Samuel L. Jackson in voiceover—with archival footage of the Civil Rights era.
The speeches, words, and conversations of King, X, and Baldwin himself intersect and interact, producing a narrative of race and oppression in America that is both shocking and still far too timely. The film then interweaves contemporary scenes of the Ferguson protests, the Rodney King beating, and videos of police brutality to reveal the continuum between Baldwin’s impassioned and often despairing words of the 1950s and 60s, and the world we still live in. Incorporated even further are visual and cinematic representations of African-Americans, from the silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to John Wayne westerns, and more progressive—but still troubling—films like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
Sometimes, Peck illustrates Baldwin’s words directly: as Baldwin speaks about Doris Day and Gary Cooper, the film punctuates his words with Day singing a song from Lover Come Back and Cooper dancing with Audrey Hepburn. But more often the film integrates Baldwin’s words, both as performed by Jackson and as spoken by Baldwin himself, with images and films that do not directly illustrate his meaning, drawing parallels between Baldwin’s Civil Rights era conversations with white intellectuals and the contemporary moment. I Am Not Your Negro at times bears resemblance to the essay films of Godard, the montage work of Eisenstein, and the impassioned narrative voice of Baldwin himself. It’s hardly surprising that Samuel L. Jackson was the perfect actor to embody Baldwin’s voice, not as a narrator but as an actual performer. Jackson becomes the voice of the author, not mimicking Baldwin’s cadences but interpreting the words themselves.
I Am Not Your Negro is a perfect companion piece to the equally brilliant but more straightforward 13th, directed by Ava Duvernay, which examines that current state of the prison-industrial complex through the lens of the 13th Amendment. Both films are about race in America, dealing with identity, oppression, and complicity in complex and galvanizing ways. Both evoke a sense of horror and shame in the liberal white viewer as the deep and (to us) unknown complexities of blackness in America are laid bear, not for our entertainment or our edification, but to express something deep and fundamental in the American racial landscape. I cannot say what the experience of watching this film would be for the black viewer. I can only say that my whiteness shames me, and I think it’s important that every person, of every skin color, in this country know and experience these films. As Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Peck does not construct a wholly narrative film, in the sense that he does not tell a clear-cut story of the lives and deaths of Evers, King, and X, using Baldwin as narrator. Rather, this film visualizes Baldwin’s words, integrates them with the cinema of the period, and projects them forward into the present day. What Peck produces is a film that defies description and even criticism. I can simply say that I Am Not You Negro works—it works the way that a piece of art must work, made up of integral, complex pieces that fit together to produce a perfectly integrated whole. It’s a literary masterpiece in cinematic form. It’s a Baldwin novel.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)