Raoul Peck’s concise, hard-hitting documentary on late author James Baldwin’s unfinished novel “Remember This House” tackles race relations in the U.S. with grace and verisimilitude, not to mention honoring its subject’s legacy.
I Am Not Your Negro is a back-and-forth voyage of the schism also explored recently in the same genre, so incisively and poignantly (even in recent incendiary historically-based features like Nate Parker’s controversial Birth of a Nation). Baldwin was a black homosexual and non-religious which set him apart from other activists of his ilk. He delved into the complexities of slain Civil Rights leaders Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he felt America was the best place to live because of the freedom to speak out against it. And, so he did.
The fly-on-the-wall treatment is a marvel of words, sights and sounds with expert editing to connect the protests, bigotry and violence of pre-JFK to the now which includes Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, Mo. The videos and clips of Baldwin interacting with so many artists, activists, and politicians, like Robert F. Kennedy is bracing while Samuel L. Jackson provides stellar unobtrusive voice-over for Baldwin when it comes to excerpts from letters, essays, and novels.
Peck, maker of the lauded Lumumba and a Haiti native, is quite deft in this format to speculate where Baldwin’s project was headed and how prophetic a very quotable man was. The racial influence on the film industry isn’t neglected either; footage from King Kong, The Defiant Ones, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner are among the entries recognized in a country that hasn’t really addressed important issues like national poverty.
There’s plenty to absorb in I Am Not Your Negro that expressively tells it like it is and was, without being too explicit that can be an important historical and educational tool. As Baldwin, who spoke out against Ivy Leaguers on The Dick Cavett Show and made William F. Buckley look ordinary, would hope that the dialogue will continue with liberation needed on a certain side of the divide. With a tumultuous road from ongoing fear and intolerance perhaps moving forward towards a utopian compassion, peace, and reconciliation.