Director: Raoul Peck
Screenplay: James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 93 Minutes
I Am Not Your Negro is a strange and captivating document concerning the civil rights movement, that breaths and hums with layers of purpose and intent that is as strong and verdant as it is difficult to handle and stomach as it slowly smothers the audience with its intent through imagery and language.
Haitian director Raoul Peck has here attempted to bring the works of American erudite writer and social critic James Baldwin to the cinematic medium. Specifically based upon his unfinished and proposed manuscript, Remember This House, Peck uses the linguistic verbosity of Baldwin’s phrases (brilliantly narrated by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson) and eclectic perspectives of America to paint a portrait of a dark era of social realignment. It’s a multimedia effort, compiling its footage from variations of films, television broadcasts, newspaper clippings and moving images from across the past century.
It holds a structure similar to Baldwin’s intent, engaging with his own personal experiences with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, and how their very different approaches to race relations managed to fill a larger whole of the real America of the time. Baldwin’s depictions of these men are raw and intimate insights into a singular mind, but encompassing a collective consciousness of anguish and rage that feels as sharp and volatile as the actions of any of these men.
His deconstructions of media consumption prove multiple examples of an engrained crisis at the hearts of those in a place of power, and how little these events have actually evolved into the present as we cut between his words and events subsequent of his death in 1987. Western mythologizing through its media and its history have aided in the creation of a stifling hesitance to discuss the manner and representation of race in the contemporary landscape. The binaries of the western for example are explored in a moment in which at a young age Baldwin realised that the ‘heroes’ he was supposed to be identifying with weren’t representing him.
It’s a suffocating watch, but at times feels as though it’s not so much challenging the author's perspectives and words as it is glorifying the sentiments and paying tribute to Baldwin as an amalgamated figure with a languid presentation. But maybe that is, in fact, the film’s intent; to draw intention to words that still need hearing and ring as true as when they were stated and written. Whenever shouted down for his continued deliberations on race by those too ignorant or stupid to see otherwise, or to want to ignore the issue altogether, his response of “white is a metaphor for power” still feels like the blow it was always intended to be – and should always be felt.