February 9, 2017
As both a black man and a homosexual, writer James Baldwin’s work usually dealt with social injustice and inequality on some level. When he died in 1987, he left behind an unfinished manuscript for a book called Remember This House that detailed his own memories of the civil rights struggle of the sixties. This manuscript is the framework for I Am Not Your Negro.
I Am Not Your Negro uses Baldwin’s own words, read by Samuel L. Jackson, to trace his experiences with the civil rights movement and, most impressively, to recount stories of a trio of assassinated leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Because it’s a first-hand narrative from one of the movement’s key figures, it’s a convincing point-of-view. But it’s more than a simple history lesson, it’s a personal account of a journey, and a disturbingly prophetic look at how things have not changed all that much in today’s world. And it’s a wilding engaging watch.
Although much of I Am Not Your Negro is Baldwin’s meaningful prose placed over still pictures and amateur video, director Raoul Peck (Lumumba) also splices in archival news footage and television interviews as well as produced segments to break up the monotony of Jackson’s voiceover. The film has a bit of a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, like it’s sometimes veering off-track a bit, but there’s always a point to make, and the film hits that point more often than it misses it. And Peck punctuates the whole thing with a slick soundtrack of hits from the likes of James Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Buddy Guy. Between the energetic music and Jackson’s soothing narration, social awareness has never sounded so cool.
If there’s a fatal flaw to I Am Not Your Negro, it’s not with the filmmaking, it’s with the subject matter. Movies of this ilk generally tend to preach to the converted. Those who need to see it will have no interest, while those who already believe in what Baldwin has to say will line up and pay twice. The fact that it’s nominated for an Academy Award may sway some fringe viewers, and that’s a good thing. Because I Am Not Your Negro is powerful stuff for a time when, frankly, America needs it the most.