James Baldwin’s Words Come Alive in I Am Not Your Negro
By Adam Cook
“The story of the negro in America is the story of America”. —James Baldwin
The great writer and social critic James Baldwin died just under 30 years ago. And yet, despairingly, it must be said, that his words ring with as much truth today as they did during their initial utterance. A key figure of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin’s novels, plays, and essays explore the plight of the African American and societal oppression of an inherently racist nation. His words illuminated, and continue to illuminate, the racial tensions that are perpetually on the verge of boiling over in the United States, and for many define a characteristic of their daily lives.
Perhaps this is a film that could serve just about any historical moment, but in particular Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro feels as urgent and essential as possible for our present day. This documentary is an adaptation of Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House, an ambitious personal account of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr that tracks black history from its beginning through the Civil Rights Movement. Leaving behind just 30 pages of this manuscript, filmmaker Raoul Peck brings them to life, ingeniously interweaving archival footage featuring Baldwin expounding on its themes. The result is a film that feels achingly personal while also expertly crafted with the eye of an historian.
No small part of the film’s power comes from its narration. The words from Baldwin’s incomplete book are spoken aloud by an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson, who tones down his distinct inflection, and in a nearly whispered register impassionately rumbles through them, giving them a reflective sound as they’re being refined in Baldwin’s head as he puts them on the page. Jackson also makes no attempt to sound anything like Baldwin. It’s a very specific choice and a brilliant point of direction by Peck.
Baldwin and Peck delve deep into historical and political details, but also into intimate ones. Baldwin recalls how when he was in a relationship with a white woman, they would commute home 30 minutes apart so as not to be seen together. When remarking upon Evers, Malcolm X, and King Jr, now rendered giants of history, Baldwin reminds us, “people forget how young everybody was”. Footage of Baldwin in televised interviews are striking to watch. At once, the discourse feels more evolved in the present day, but so many of the central problems do not whatsoever, revealing a stubbornness in White America that remains strong. Baldwin aggressively admirably holds his ground in moments of debate. An orator of great eloquence, his words aren’t just relevant socially today, but also have the power to stir great feeling.
The film also guides us through the history of representation of African Americans in cinema, charting the steps forward and backward, unpacking the connotations of Hollywood imagery, and conveying the experience of what it’s like to grow up without images that represent your experience, your race. Watching films with white heroes, Baldwin recognized at an early age that his “countrymen were my enemy”. I Am Not Your Negro is a film that mobilizes Baldwin’s insights and aims to shake the foundations of any assumptions one may have about America—and now seems as a good a time as any to redefine what that may be.