I Am Not Your Negro (2016) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson (third-person narration)
Director: Raoul Peck
Screenplay: James Baldwin
Review published February 24, 2017
Claims of a "post-racial" American society are exaggerated as evidenced in Raoul Peck's Academy Award-nominated documentary on famed author James Baldwin, whose unfinished manuscript for a proposed memoir on the deaths of several Civil Rights giants, tentatively entitled, "Remember This House", provides the basis for the commentary about his experiences as an African-American in a country that continuously seems to not deal with its overbearing racism head on. Much of the commentary depicts Baldwin's eloquent vocalizations during the Civil Rights Movement, where he was not exactly a joiner, but was a passionate observer and commentator, brilliantly weaving his thoughts on the matter to not only appeal to a black American movement, but in an effort to wake up a white America to address the issues of its racist past and present.
Within the commentary of the manuscript, delivered in his voice by Samuel L. Jackson (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), Baldwin describes his difficulties reconciling the losses of so many important voices for African-Americans, especially his intended subjects in Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. But more pointed than that, Baldwin is much more critical about the blithe ignorance of America's white population, many of whom seem to tolerate the racist acts of its society, if not completely go about ignoring them altogether.
While Baldwin is a fascinating subject, and the subject matter is certainly very important (and timely, it turns out), Peck's documentarian choices don't always make for riveting cinema. Samuel L. Jackson just doesn't exhibit the same fire in his delivery, or quickness, reading Baldwin's words in a subdued monotone, which is a curious choice given that both Baldwin and Jackson are known for their passionate voices. Jackson would famously read the audiobook for the amusing children's book, "Go the Fuck to Sleep", but even that reading, which is literally meant to put someone into a comfortable slumber, is more lively than the one he manages to muster here, which sounds like he recorded it in bed while trying not to rouse whomever might be asleep next to him.
But that's a stylistic choice, perhaps to symbolize an older and more world-weary Baldwin than the one we see from the historical clips of his television appearances on such talk shows like "The Dick Cavett Show". Those clips, along with plenty of rare photographs, are a highlight, and I Am Not Your Negro is never more riveting than when clips of Baldwin himself are playing for our perusal, a voice of measure, reason, but also strong conviction on the myriad of problems with America's treatment of its black populace that should be paramount in addressing, and yet many white Americans either turn a deaf ear to the struggles, or they actively participate in attacking the oppressed even more.
There are also a plethora of clips from old Hollywood classics, either showing the caricatured representations of African-Americans offered to white America in small roles within the narratives, or visions of a white America blissfully carrying about living in luxurious fashion completely devoid of what's going in black America that continues to suffer on a daily basis from economic disparity, submission from the threat of continued violence from authorities, and the hypocrisy within them that champions those who rebel against oppression so long as they are white, yet views those who fight against oppression by those whites as a menace that must be put back into their place (the FBI was keenly monitoring Baldwin's activities), if not eradicated. While blacks are literally being punched, spat upon, or even lynched, white Americans continue to consume fluff like Doris Day movies where they are exposed to none of the trials and tribulations among people who live not far from the theater they are sipping sodas in.
While Baldwin is the primary subject, Peck's focus is merely on the author's views and rhetoric on race, leaving anecdotes and personal history as incidental to the piece. The film also astutely shows us footage of the march for racial equality that continues to this day, and it's especially effective in showing how even the election of a black president in Barack Obama doesn't mean that America's accountability with its treatment of blacks and other minorities are forgiven, forgotten, or, most importantly, concluded. Just as Baldwin's book would not be finished in his lifetime, the story of America, and its long history on the treatment of its black populace will continue to be written, and though we don't have Baldwin's erudite voice to challenge us in the present tense, with I Am Not Your Negro, he still gets to chime in with important and prescient messages on how important the issues of racial equality should be for every American, not just the ones who suffer day to day.
©2017 Vince Leo