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I Am Not Your Negro
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by Jay Seaver

"Uncomfortable truths impressively presented."
5 stars

No matter the size or seriousness of a topic, if it is something to which its chronicler has a personal connection, then that account will almost inevitably reveal as much about the author as the subject itself; the personal is hard to escape. Had James Baldwin finished "Remember This House", his book on the Civil Rights movement and the three assassinations that punctuated it in the 1960s during his lifetime, that almost certainly would have been the case, and part of what makes "I Am Not Your Negro" so good is that director Raoul Peck runs with this rather than trying to stick with what Baldwin originally tried to create, a decision that retains his distinctive voice even while reminding the viewer that this was and is a people's struggle for a ideal rather than the string of individual triumphs and tragedies to which it is often reduced.

Peck builds the narration of the film almost entirely around Baldwin's words - read by Samuel L. Jackson in a lower, heavier register than the signature voice of either, giving them the more imposing and concrete sound of the written word - so it starts with personal reminiscences of Baldwin being in Paris as desegregation started in earnest, not missing the things that are distinctly American at all but compelled to return because watching this struggle from across an ocean would be irresponsible. Much of the early going of the film is similar, sometimes acknowledged as being taken from correspondence with his editor explaining his motivations and approach and sometimes just seeming that way. It never becomes a biography of Baldwin - there's a specificity to how Peck deploys these memories, a clear application to the subject at hand, even if they are of necessity longer toward the start. If nothing else, it serves as an introduction to Baldwin as a personality for those of us not exposed to him earlier.

It is his ideas and uncompromising expression of them that are the spine of the film, and the collaboration across time between him and Peck ensures that they hit forcefully: Baldwin was, from certain points of view, cynical - from others, simply not one to delude himself - and his brutally forthright examination of how much of white America was only willing to allow a space for other people after slavery ended with great reluctance, whether that be in schools or in the movies, can be a difficult pill for many to swallow, especially when Baldwin (or whatever clip is on-screen) uses vocabulary that has fallen out of favor. Peck structures the movie in part around footage of a 1968 appearance by Baldwin on Dick Cavett's show, where whatever sympathy Cavett gets for seeming a little uncomfortable generalizing about "Negro issues" drains away as he starts to become defensive, leading to a blistering demolition of a white intellectual using many more words to say "I'm sure it's not that bad" and "not all white people..." Last that feel too triumphant, albeit fleetingly, the larger structure is just as pointed - while Peck and Baldwin may mostly be speaking of broad ideas, there is forward momentum to the events being used to illustrate them, and the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. are placed so as to remind the viewer that this is not just academic, but that people were dying for it.

While the words belong to Baldwin, the choice of images sits with Peck, and he (along with editor Alexandra Strauss) stitches together a film that propels the audience from one set of words to another. Baldwin mentions films a fair amount in his writing, and while Peck will quickly find an obviously illustrative clip, he generally wastes no time pairing it with one that subverts it so thoroughly as to cause whiplash, or choosing a clip that serves as an odd but fitting illustration. He does not simply go for films, but plenty of archival footage of both the time in question and the present, showing how what Baldwin wrote and spoke about still applies in the present day, much as white people often like to think it doesn't. Between those images, Peck breaks his film up with bold chapter markers, announcing the themes of the film in stark black and white but also with style.

As fine a film as this is, it benefits a bit from the bait and switch consciously or unconsciously used in describing it: It's not the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations that gave it the clear heroes and villains most remember as seen and told by James Baldwin; it's Baldwin's ruminations on the underlying situation that make such a movement essential, then and now. It's a, argument, not a history, and will likely hit all the harder for initially appearing to be the other thing.

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originally posted: 10/30/16 11:38:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 New York Film Festival For more in the 2016 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/06/17 MIcha S. A must see history of the "new world" 4 stars
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  DVD: 02-May-2017


  DVD: 02-May-2017

Directed by
  Raoul Peck

Written by
  Raoul Peck
  James Baldwin


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