“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin
The hardest part about watching I Am Not Your Negro, easily 2016’s best documentary and most essential viewing, is watching it. More than once, I cringed, winced, looked away, closed my eyes; it was all I could do to keep watching, keep facing the stark reality Raoul Peck brings to the screen through James Baldwin’s words.
In 1979, Baldwin proposed a book, Remember This House, that would chronicle his friendships with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, each murdered for their activism. He wrote a proposal letter to his publisher, and thirty pages of that book before his death in 1987. Peck uses both as a jumping off point for his documentary about one of the most articulate, provocative and honest voices of the civil rights movement.
I’m ashamed to say I was not familiar with Baldwin before this film’s release. Admittedly (and embarrassingly), my studies have never delved deeply into the civil rights movement. But to think that his writings and debates and interviews have faded from public discourse over time as we remember King and other luminaries more is a travesty, and I intend to seek out his essays and observations in the coming weeks, months and years of this current socio-political landscape we find ourselves in.
Because herein lies the most powerful ramifications of Peck’s flawless documentary: its timeliness.
Built around Samuel Jackson’s thoughtful narration from Baldwin’s letters and writing (can someone be nominated for a voice over performance?), Peck combines archival footage and photos with current events, the resulting gut punch reminding us that, in this new post-Obama world we live in, not much has changed after all. With blinding frankness, he forces the audience to confront the murders of innocent black children in recent years alongside the police brutality peaceful marchers faced in Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery. The outrage in Ferguson meets the palpable frustration of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers decades ago.
At times video installation, at times historical archive, the film dispenses quickly with any sugar coating of the brutal history of racism in America and its limitless repercussions over decades and into today. A masterful construction throughout, the film shines most when it lets Baldwin himself do the talking, be it in an interview on The Dick Cavett Show or a 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge. The latter is interspersed throughout the film, and by the time we see Baldwin’s conclusion and the spontaneous standing ovation he receives in response, I dare you to not to be moved.
In what’s covered in the film, Baldwin speaks of the state of the country and its racial divide in the mid-sixties onward (he did continue writing into the ’70s and ’80s, but from what I’ve researched, that work pales in comparison to his output in the 1950s and ’60s). But one would be forgiven for thinking he’s speaking today, to us directly. Which is exactly Peck’s point, of course. Chilling are the images of white supremacists protesting school integration, knowing what we know today about our current commander in chief and those who voted for him. Images of Malcolm X, King and Evers in their coffins alongside the faces of the young men and woman killed recently for the crime of being black. Look, Peck is saying. Look and face it.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow. We have made progress, but we are not done. No where near it. Make I Am Not Your Negro required viewing for every civics class in the country, and we would certainly be on the right path.
I Am Not Your Negro – dir Raoul Peck, written by James Baldwin. Opens in Chicago Friday, Feb. 3. Official Site
Passes the Bechdel Test: n/a
Passes the DuVernay Test: n/a