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I Am Not Your Negro, review - 'powerful portrait of James Baldwin' | reviews, news & interviews

I Am Not Your Negro, review - 'powerful portrait of James Baldwin'

I Am Not Your Negro, review - 'powerful portrait of James Baldwin'

Oscar-nominated documentary about the pioneering writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin

The long battle for Civil Rights in America

The Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro is a chronicle of the pioneering writer and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin. Its director Raoul Peck mirrors the intellectual challenge that Baldwin set his audience: the film demands that you pay close attention and listen to a complex argument backed up visually with diverse social and cultural references.

Instead of making a conventional biographical documentary, one which would combine archive, interviews with those who knew Baldwin, experts opining on his legacy and a narrator guiding us through the writer-activist’s history in voiceover, we get Baldwin’s own words as narration, read by actor Samuel L. Jackson. The result is a powerful and fascinating film – a deftly edited montage of film clips, present-day actuality, period footage and photographs – counterpointed with music that ranges from Lightnin' Hopkins to Kendrick Lamar.

Haitian-born Peck gained the confidence of Baldwin's sister, who zealously guards his literary estate, and immersed himself in his writings. Rather than work from his published books (Notes of A Native Son, The Fire Next Time) which have become seminal texts of American black history, Peck focusses on an unfinished manuscript Baldwin was writing at the time of his death in 1987. The 30-page document was the beginning of a memoir of three heroes of black American history: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. Baldwin knew them personally, and set out to reflect on their legacy and violent deaths during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Baldwin, a consummate social historian and polemicist, considered their continuing challenge to American society. He had known all three men, and felt the need not only to bear witness but to continue their challenge to white Americans, particularly any complacent liberals who thought the battle for racial equality had been won with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  

James Baldwin (pictured right) traced the 1960s Civil Rights martyrs' continuing impact on life in 1980s America in his unfinished text. Peck extends his historic overview even further, to the present day. Baldwin’s words are intoned not just over images from the school desegregation era (1957) and the Watts riots (1965) but also over news footage from the recent killings that have inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point Baldwin says, "History is not the past, it’s the present. We carry our history with us."

With few captions giving dates, and minimal source information for the images used, this kaeleidoscopic approach is artistically and politically powerful if occasionally confusing. The documentary cuts from Doris Day twinkling in glorious Technicolor to stark monochrome photos of lynching victims from the same year. Baldwin himself appears throughout – the main interview is from The Dick Cavett Show in 1968 – and there’s footage of him debating at the Cambridge University in 1965 (presumably this dates from the same UK visit as featured in Horace Ové’s pioneering documentary, Baldwin's Nigger).

Peck does not go into Baldwin’s sexuality – he made no secret of being gay – which left him vulnerable to attack from homophobic elements in American black politics, but perhaps that’s a subject for another film. I Am Not Your Negro is a dense, visually poetic and politically provocative film essay in the style of directors like Adam Curtis and Chris Marker. This style of documentary demands a lot of prior knowledge about the history of race relations in the US and of Baldwin’s own work and life but it’s worth it if it inspires viewers to seek out his writing.  

Peck's kaeleidoscopic approach is artistically and politically powerful if occasionally confusing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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