Director: Raoul Peck
I am a white male and citizen of the UK. I’m coming up on 34 years old at the time of writing. I do not live in a racially diverse part of the country, nor have I at any point in my life. One might refer to me as sheltered and privileged and have good grounds on both counts. For the record, I welcome greater diversity where I live. I look forward to it. With these situations in mind as I write about this film, I can’t help but reflect on how most of my experience of black men and women has come from television and film and how a great proportion of that exposure has been imported from the states. US entertainment floods the UK. The story of America and the story of black men and women in America has principally been told to me through film.
Raoul Peck’s bold documentary I Am Not Your Negro affirms what I already felt to be true; that many of these images are distorted, are lies, and are clouded by the terror felt by white men in positions of influence who feel threatened in ways they might not even fully understand themselves. The film assembles archive footage – from newsreel and from cinema – and jumbles these searing moments until any sense of chronology becomes moot. And in a sense there is no chronology to this story; it is timeless. But not in any misty-eyed or unifying sense. But rather in the sense that, despite the ground covered, so little seems to have been learned. America is still at war with itself over race; and its a war that the country is still struggling to make sense out of.
Peck uses these images to provide wide-ranging societal context to the words of James Baldwin, seen here in many stirring interviews mainly from the 60’s. I Am Not Your Negro takes the words of an unfinished project of his, “Remember This House”, and places them in the mouth of Samuel L Jackson (delivering one of his most selfless performances and entirely off camera). Baldwin’s musings on the tempestuous existence of America and the racial tensions therein are given new life in this collision of sound and vision. Principally the film is framed around the deaths of Medgar Evans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.; three important voices of their generation whom Baldwin knew personally. Yet the context of the film stretches out from these extraordinary men. It reaches back in time to the first slaves brought to American soil. And it stretches forwards; past Baldwin’s own death and into our immediate past. Footage from Ferguson is here. And, in almost the film’s most bracing cross-stitching of time, it ends colliding archive footage of Baldwin with Kendrick Lamar’s furious “The Blacker The Berry” pounding loud on the soundtrack; one of the most audacious smash-to-credits moments I can recall. History is happening now, it says. And history isn’t over.
If it sounds a bit scattered, a bit grab-bag, then it is. The subject of inequality for the black populous of America is so vast that Peck uses Baldwin’s prose to tear right into its bloody centre rather than attempt some calmed narrative taking us from one end to the other. These are Baldwin’s words and not some history channel’s narrative of America. America is too complicated for storytelling of such simplicity; a great irony as I Am Not Your Negro positions the country as hopelessly addicted to its own myth.
Cinema is a big part of that myth and the archival footage used here, in combination with Baldwin’s words, suggests the delivery of a selective experience of America being broadcast to its populous. Peck outright points the finger at Hollywood as a major culprit in the country’s malaise for dreaming up lifestyle scenarios that aren’t readily available in the real world. Further still, Peck’s film provokes, what level of culpability does the cinema have for our shared society of denial? Now that we’ve let these fantasies in, why won’t we let them go?
By taking this athletic approach to its subject, the resulting film feels breathless, and given the size of the conversation I Am Not Your Negro comes in at a surprisingly svelte 93 minutes. But this should in no way be misread as meaning it is unfocused or sloppy. It is, at all times, searingly on point. Peck and Baldwin and Jackson are fused together here, and the images selected provide engaging backdrop to the material at hand. Still, the film is at it’s most affecting when Baldwin gets to speak for himself in the form of archival interview footage. The passion of the man is irrepressible, and one wholly understands why his words continue to find life in manners such as this.
There’s justified anger and frustration here, but also thoughtful reasoning. Baldwin was a thoughtful man and I am sorry for my lack of prior exposure to his voice. It strikes me, writing this in my bubble, that though the historic fire of the civil rights movement of the 60’s is some years behind us, that it seems only recently that said fire is entering our homes and cinemas on such a scale through movies and documentaries. I don’t recall the discussion happening with such a voice previously in my lifetime. Perhaps that’s a comment on my own awareness. Regardless, it’s heartening. What impressed me the most during OJ: Made In America, for example, was the extreme lengths that the filmmakers went to in providing context for Simpson’s case. Societal context. America may have spent the last two centuries in denial of itself, but Peck suggests an awakening. The form that awakening takes will be worth all of our attention.