One can immediately sense the attraction writer and political activist James Baldwin exerts on Raoul Peck, the Haiti-born filmmaker and activist who has sensitively illuminated the lives of such figures as Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo, and Karl Marx. I Am Not Your Negro is a biography of Baldwin only in passing; it is more an attempt to link the ideas of three assassinated American leaders — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — to each other and to their social context. Above all, it is a searing and topical indictment of racial prejudice and hatred in America that makes for uneasy viewing and is not easily forgotten.
This is the kind of vividly intelligent documentary that will shine brightly at festivals, and the Magnolia Pictures release should be capable of some limited theatrical exposure before TV provides the big audience.
The film takes as its starting point a famous book Baldwin never wrote. When in 1979 literary agent Jay Acton asked him to write about the lives and successive assassinations of three of his friends, he responded with a 30-page letter explaining why he could not. The manuscript, Notes Toward Remember This House, was entrusted to Peck by the James Baldwin Estate and forms the backbone of the film. It is a deeply moving memoir and, dramatic as it is, is not lacking in humor and poetry.
For viewers who have never heard Baldwin speak, his voice will forever hence carry the warm, self-assured ring of Samuel L. Jackson, who memorably reads his first-person letter here as well as other texts by the writer. They are supplemented by several television interviews and become the commentary on a stream of images (or caricatures) of black men and women in popular culture. Posters, ads and a particularly rich selection of period movies force the viewer to evaluate and draw conclusions about the country’s irrational fear and denial of race.
In the body of Peck’s work, which runs from the piercing Haiti tale The Man by the Shore to several docs made for HBO, this film marks a welcome return to his early interest in experimentation with form and the free-flowing juxtaposition of words and images. From the French New Wave-y opening credits, to editor Alexandra Strauss’ dynamic way of inserting startling posters and dozens of splendid film clips stretching from King Kong, Stagecoach and Dance, Fools, Dance to Elephant, there is much to visually enjoy.
Though great fun to watch, the film’s loose structure and preference for free association can get confusing, as voices and people overlap and meld into one. At times it is impossible to know who and what is really being talked about. A related quibble is the absence of a narrative arc that makes it difficult to separate out the film’s main themes and ideas. For younger viewers coming into 1960s history cold, it may seem like a heavy bombardment.
But America’s history of racism, violence, exploitation and injustice comes through with chilling clarity. Baldwin also returns time and again to gay rights, another of the great themes in his writing and the subject of a thick FBI file on his activities in the ‘60s.
Baldwin, who left to live in France early on, called the U.S. “a complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded.” While he rues his youthful identification with white heroes like John Wayne, he doesn’t believe all whites are devils, but says that racism is the source of America’s emotional and moral poverty and that “apathy and ignorance are the price of segregation.” Baldwin died in 1987, but Peck continues his thought to include contemporary events like Ferguson.
Peck, who is chairman of the French state film school La Fémis, has a European sensibility and overview (just like Baldwin, who fled to Paris and died in Saint-Paul de Vence on the French Riviera.) His photographer’s eye for contrast and striking images is aided and abetted by Alexei Aigui’s nuanced score.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production companies: A Magnolia Pictures release of a Velvet Film in association with Artemis Productions, Close Up Films, ARTE France, ITVS, RTS, TRBF, Shelter Productions
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenwriters: Raoul Peck, James Baldwin
Producers: Remi Grellety, Raoul Peck, Hebert Peck
Co-producers: Patrick Quinet, Joelle Bertossa
Directors of photography: Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross, Turner Ross
Editor: Alexandra Strauss
Music: Alexei Aigui
World sales: ICM Partners, Wide House
Not rated, 93 minutes