I Am Not Your Negro

 

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The words of James Baldwin live again in a film like no other.

 
I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin (centre)

 

The writer James Baldwin died in 1987 but in this memorable film the director Raoul Peck has devised a way of bringing back his voice. Peck's concept, a remarkably original one, is such that the film's credit which reads 'written by James Baldwin" is fully justified. It would appear that I Am Not Your Negro was triggered  by the fact that when he passed on Baldwin left behind some pages intended for an unfinished novel entitled Remember The House which would have centred on three black men who died at the hands of assassins, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. However, this film is not really an attempt to create a film version of the novel that never was: these men and their fate do give a sense of shape and structure to a film that might otherwise have been lacking in that respect, but it is Baldwin himself who is the key figure here.

 

In effect, Peck has created an essay film in which we see and hear a great writer who was also a polemicist speaking from the heart and in radical terms about what it meant to be a black man in America. Written    words taken from articles and letters are simply and tellingly spoken by Samuel L. Jackson while TV clips and footage of the man himself speaking and debating bring us the actual voice of James Baldwin. His depth of thought and his eloquence actually gain from being given breathing space through Peck's insertion of illustrative newsreel footage and a range of extracts from movies. His careful selection of all these bits and pieces ensures that Baldwin's words cohere into a shocking portrait of the negro experience in America during his lifetime, but it becomes all the more telling because it extends to visual references to recent killings. Furthermore, material that might have seemed to belong to an appalling historical past carries an Orwell-like warning in an era that finds Trump in America and right wing extremists around the world threatening to overturn liberal changes that had seemed secure. Consequently the film could hardly arrive on our screens at a more apt time.

 

I am Not Your Negro is not quite perfect. The appearance of the film's title on screen near the end suggests that we have actually reached the concluding credits when in fact it is the final example of the written headings which divide this work into sections. It's also the case that clips of Gary Cooper and Doris Day only serve to underline the unjustifiable weight that Baldwin in his critical comments puts on the significance of their work (in contrast criticisms of The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner representing a black person's view of those films is fascinating). But such reservations are minor indeed as Baldwin develops his view that the history of the negro in America is the history of America itself and that the so-called negro problem is actually the problem of what is wrong with a nation that has lost its way and found a scapegoat instead of facing the truth. It's great stuff and thanks to Raoul Peck all that you need to do to appreciate it is to see his film. It must surely prove to be one of the best documentaries of the year.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Archive footage of James Baldwin; Narration by Samuel L. Jackson.

 

Dir Raoul Peck, Pro Remi Gréllety, Raoul Peck and Hébert Peck, Screenplay James Baldwin, Ph Henry Adebonojo, Bill Ross and Turner Ross, Ed Alexandra Strauss, Music Alexei Aigui.

 

Velvet Film-Altitude Film Distribution.
94 mins. USA/France/Belgium/Switzerland. 2016. Rel: 7 April 2017. Cert. 12A.