Paired with Ezra Edelman’s remarkable O.J. Made in America and Ava DuVernay’s powerful 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro makes the third part of an essential trio of recent documentaries that explore race relations in the United States.
Although the film focuses on the great writer James Baldwin – whose unfinished book, Remember This House, provides the lens through which the images we see are filtered – the picture digs much deeper, exploring how Baldwin’s take on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s parallels issues facing our nation today. It also provides proof for the concept that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The film provides biographical details of Baldwin’s life – his teenage years in Harlem, the author’s love of movies, his time spent in Paris and, much later, the friendships he formed with civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But while Baldwin has been dead for more than 30 years – he’d only begun work on “Remember This House,” which focused on the three aforementioned civil rights leaders – his words resonate in a profound way for our current American life.
As the film opens, Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” plays as images of civil rights marchers are assailed and black men and women of all ages are brutalized by the police during the 1950s and 1960s. These are coupled with shots from recent landmark events, such as the protests following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter marches. Later in the picture, images of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Brown and many other young men who lost their lives at the hands of overzealous police act as reminders that the struggles of yesterday have never been resolved.
Peck’s film also provides some terrific interviews with Baldwin that are interlaced throughout the course of the picture. Most notable is an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show where he tangles with a Yale professor who doesn’t understand why Baldwin focuses so much of his writing through the lens of race.
In one of the picture’s most powerful and truthful moments, the writer points out that black people know white people much better than the opposite, since our national culture has historically always been viewed from the vantage point of white lives and families, whereas most whites are likely ignorant to the way most black lives are led. At the film’s end, he expounds on why the six-letter racial slur that is an extension of a word in the film’s title came to exist and it’s a particularly powerful way to close this documentary.
One need only to take a quick glance around our current political and social landscape to realize why a film such as I Am Not Your Negro – and, for that matter, O.J. and 13th, but also Moonlight and even Hidden Figures – are so urgent for the moment.
The phrase “speaking truth to power” is overused but, in this case, Peck’s riveting documentary provides arguments that those in power, should they choose to view the film, would have difficulty denying. It’s a movie that reflects on the past but, at the same time, is about right now, this very minute.