James Baldwin, novelist and playwright, tells the story of Black men in America with a voice of wisdom, sorrow and mourning. Baldwin’s memoir is a touching, personal account of combating the ever-prevalent racism in the United States while paying due tribute to his friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who died trying to end it. From Baldwin’s poetic prose to Samuel L. Jackson’s calming, hushed narration (Though the actor usually prefers a forceful shout, as evidenced by Marvel’s Nick Fury, “Snakes on a Plane” and “Pulp Fiction”), Raoul Peck’s (“Murder in Pacot”) documentary version of the author’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House,” is a meaningful homage to the unpublished masterpiece.
More than just depicting a life, the film depicts a struggle — the struggle of the African American community in America and the struggle of the people who fought to end that struggle. Within the span of five years, three great men were murdered for fighting in the name of civil rights, equality and justice. First was Medgar Evers, then it was Malcolm X, then Martin Luther King Jr. The world lost three great leaders, but James Baldwin lost three dear friends. In the film, Baldwin recalls the details and memories of discovering the news of the assassinations. He was on vacation when he found out about Medgar over the radio, he was out to dinner when he found out about Malcolm, he was in L.A. when he got the call about Martin. Baldwin’s losses are what inspired him to write the famed manuscript and they drive the film forward.
“I Am Not Your Negro” manages to seamlessly weave together found and real footage into a clear and stunning portrayal of Baldwin’s work. Even Baldwin’s plentiful references to Hollywood blockbusters like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Dance, Fools, Dance” are incorporated with skill and artistry. The collage of images compiled into the film takes Baldwin’s words and turns them into the perfect narration for events both past and present. The historical footage of Baldwin is representative of his personality, adding his own voice and mannerisms to the film. The audience finds him on “The Dick Cavett Show” flicking the ash from his cigarette, speaking eloquently in the hallowed halls of Cambridge, riding in the passenger seat through his native Harlem, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston.
In addition to providing a portrait of Baldwin during his lifetime, the film showcases a variety of footage and photographs illustrating a still evident racial divide within American society. From riots in the streets of Ferguson to police brutality in Los Angeles, the film intertwines Baldwin’s memories of the disturbing past with today’s disturbing present. Raoul Peck has compiled an impressive arsenal of found footage that tells a story in and of itself; it is only a fitting that it sings so beautifully in duet with Baldwin’s work. “I Am Not Your Negro” is an innovative and simply excellent documentary that gives voice to the genius of James Baldwin, while addressing race in America from a perspective both old and new.