I Am Not Your Negro begins by telling the audience that shortly before writer James Baldwin’s death, he was planning to embark on a new writing project. The planned work, Remember This House, was to be a tribute to his fallen friends of the civil rights movement – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But unfortunately, Baldwin never made it past his 30 pages of planning and notes. Director Raoul Peck pieces together these unpublished notes with archive interviews, speeches and letters in an attempt to tell the story that Baldwin was never able to. The result is a mesmerising and troublingly relevant study of race. This is not a historical study. It is looking at the past, yes – but it is also looking at the world today, and the world of tomorrow.
Built entirely on James Baldwin’s words, the film does away with cliché talking heads and contextual narration. The film’s narrative is formed solely by the observations of Baldwin and the occasional piece of archive footage of contemporaries Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., with Baldwin’s poetic unpublished notes and letters read passionately by an understated and haunting Samuel L. Jackson. The film also boasts a stunning use of appropriate archive footage to reflect Baldwin’s words, be it film or news clips from the era or, in some cases, contemporary footage of race-related riots and Black Lives Matter rallies. It is in these sequences that the film truly hits home – if words written 50 years ago can be spoken so accurately about events that are happening today, has the world really changed?
I Am Not Your Negro is a poignant depiction of the hard and ugly truths of history, and a call for action for change. Peck has said that a population majority is required for change to occur, and the world needs to take a look at itself and embark on this journey together. And yet, with Peck’s reliance entirely on Baldwin’s words, the film itself is never overly preachy, nor does it seem to have much of a bias…it presents history as it happened and allows the viewer to make their own mind up. The archive footage and factual discussion of segregation and racism is enough to speak for itself, making the film a truly hard-hitting and emotional journey. Will it inspire change? Time will tell.
This is a masterclass in documentary filmmaking. Timely and powerfully relevant, watching – no, experiencing I Am Not Your Negro should be a legal requirement.