I Am Not Your Negro

Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment

May 12, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The response received by documentary films is sometimes muddled when content and form fall prey to good intentions. Simply espousing a worthy cause, or at least one perceived that way, can be enough to draw praise. It doesn’t always feel right to knock attempts to highlight inequities, even if the end product is something of a dud.

No such concerns surround I Am Not Your Negro which manages to handle a difficult topic with the kind of tender care that shouldn’t be possible in a film provoking such anger, sadness and flat out despair at the state of American race relations. That it is possible is to the endless credit of filmmaker Raoul Peck, and partly thanks to the enduring brilliance of author James Baldwin.

Peck uses Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House as a hook to explore how little has changed since the promise and anguish of the Civil Rights movement. In the manuscript, Baldwin began to write on the subject basing his thoughts around the lives and death of three men: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He abandoned the project 30 pages in, but drawing from his notes and expertly parsed archive footage, Peck puts his thoughts together.

A voiceover drawn directly from Baldwin’s words—Samuel L. Jackson providing the voice in a sombre, even tone—sounds across a parade of painful imagery. Peck mixes photographs and recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s with clips of Baldwin giving his own views on the state of America. Brutal pictures of racist counter-protests and police violence are contrasted, and unfortunately far too often compared with the modern day.

Because Baldwin is the focus, and his thoughts form the entirety of the film, Peck isn’t content to simply appal viewers with the reality facing black Americans. He wants to go deeper, providing space for Baldwin to dissect what it’s like to view the country from the position of the dispossessed. There are deeply personal moments as he reflects on the deaths of friends, and deeply personal moments of a different nature as he tries to understand his own complicated views on racism, culture and white complicity.

The variety of archive material, and the way Peck allows it to flow together, ably supported by music that plays to the right emotional cues, backs Baldwin’s words, making them more powerful. I Am Not Your Negro manages to be as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally impactful, which is a remarkable feat.

But this is a remarkable film, a flawless documentary that manages to capture an era while showing with devastating effect that era didn’t resolve all problems or absolve all sins. Although Baldwin declares himself an optimist, and Peck offers glimmers of hope, this brilliant study of the racial divide doesn’t find too much to be optimistic about.

The home release also includes an interview with Peck, separate Q&A’s with Peck and Jackson and a picture gallery.

Author rating: 10/10

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