Movie review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ gives fresh voice to James Baldwin

Al Alexander More Content Now
This image shows James Baldwin, center, in "I Am Not Your Negro." (Velvet Film)

Much about the civil rights movement has been written, spoken and performed, but seldom has it been as powerfully packaged as it is in “I Am Not Your Negro.” Offered through the eyes and words of author James Baldwin, the Oscar-nominated documentary is perhaps the definitive chronicle of a movement that’s sharply declined since the Tea Party commandeered our government, surreptitiously stripping away voting rights, equal protection and facilitating the murder of young black children through the race-based “stand your ground” laws.

At surface, Raoul Peck’s impeccably rendered collection of movie clips, archival videos, photographs and recordings seems a hagiographic tribute to Baldwin and his unique perspective on civil rights via his close friendships with the movement’s three M’s: Malcolm, Martin and Medgar. And it’s told through Baldwin’s own melodic observations, spoken reverently in a cool, calm and somewhat soothing matter by a significantly dialed-down Samuel L. Jackson. But lurking just below the surface is the shocking truth of how Baldwin’s eloquent words remain as significant today as when they were originally uttered in the 13 years between the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955 and his subsequent murder in 1968.

Peck drives home the point juxtaposing images from demonstrations in the 1960s with recent uprisings in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Charlotte. Has anything really changed beyond racism being more discreet and internalized? I needn’t tell you the answer. And that’s what makes “Negro” so powerful and resonate. As Baldwin once wrote, “History is not the past; it’s the present. We carry our history with us. We ARE our history.”

It’s not like Peck needs to prove this, but he does — often movingly. But the points where “Negro” really gets to you, is when Baldwin reflects on where and how he got the news each time his three close friends was assassinated one by one. Baldwin often speaks about how people forget just how young these three men were, none of them living to see their 40th birthday. Baldwin was older than all of them, and you can sense a tinge of guilt when he says that it’s the oldest who is supposed to die first and blaze the trail for the younger to follow.

It was Baldwin’s plan, way back in 1979, to write the “story of America” through the lives and actions of his friends, three men with three radically different approaches in pursuit of the same goal: Racial equality. It was to be titled “Remember this House,” but Baldwin never got any further than jotting down 30 pages of notes. So, in essence, Peck is finishing the job for him through words, pictures and 60 years of reflections that enable Peck to put Baldwin’s thoughts into crystal-clear perspective.

Like Baldwin, the medium Peck loves most, is motion pictures, evidenced by his deft use of movie clips (masterfully edited by Alexandra Strauss) to illustrate Baldwin’s words, like showing John Wayne killing “Indians,” a practice Baldwin thought heroic until the day he was 5 or 6 and realized he WAS the Indians, under attack by white America. But Baldwin was never a victim. We see him in such diverse venues as “The Dick Cavett Show” and at Cambridge University, head held high, speaking proudly, even after landing on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar for being outspoken, black and gay.

The irony is that Baldwin was anything but subversive. As the many clips of him here prove, he was a gentle, thoughtful soul who learned at an early age what an ugly world he was born into by the way his fellow New Yorkers treated his elementary school teacher, Orilla “Bill” Miller, a white woman who was verbally assaulted for taking a young James under her wing and introducing him to the arts. As we hear Baldwin (through Jackson) poignantly recall, “She taught me that all white people weren’t devils.” Yet, many were, and sadly still are. A ringing fact “Negro” isn’t about to let us forget.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

A documentary by Raoul Peck based on the words and writings of author James Baldwin.

(PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)

Grade: A