The power of the documentary form is to place the viewer indelibly in the realm of foreign fact — to reveal a world outside the normative experience of the audience in sufficient detail and context to render relatable and understandable that which was previously unknown. The value of a film like Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is in its capacity to elucidate the nature and validity of black rage to those of us who have never experienced the injustices perpetrated by our society against African-Americans first hand, and to do so without relegating this message to heavy-handed proselytizing. A great deal of the film’s effectiveness can be attributed to the skill of its subject, writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, but even a figure of such undeniable historic significance and rhetorical prowess could have been ill-served by filmmakers of a lesser caliber. It should be noted that the work accomplished by Peck and his collaborators more than does justice to its subject, and to the audiences in need of his posthumous message.
By no means is this a biographical film, although its narrative is rooted in biography. Based on an unfinished book Baldwin attempted to write on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — close friends of Baldwin’s whose martyrdom in the name of the civil rights movement provided not only the connective tissue for Baldwin’s abandoned literary project, but also the emotional stumbling block that would prove its undoing — the scope of I Am Not Your Negro far surpasses the details of any one man’s life, or even the narrative potential of the civil rights movement as a whole. This is a film about the meaning of race and humanity, its central conceit the question of whether or not our civilization can be considered remotely humanistic so long as race remains an issue — and whether the word “civilized” can even be correctly applied to such a culture.
Baldwin’s own words make the most powerful statement on these subjects, and Peck has masterfully culled and structured archival footage in concert with Baldwin’s written work to present a riveting and profoundly affective encapsulation of the author’s voice. Samuel L. Jackson narrates in Baldwin’s own words, not so much imitating his tonality and idiomatic speech patterns as capturing the emotional content of the words themselves. This was a remarkably prudent approach, because as good a Jackson is, he can’t hold a candle to Baldwin himself — watching Baldwin fire back at a pretentiously dismissive Yale professor on an early episode of The Dick Cavett Show or captivate a crowd of Cambridge academics left me wishing we had more writers possessed of his cogency working today.
But Peck is after more than just a lionizing portrait of a great man, he’s trying to establish context. The archival footage he employs consists of more than simply interviews or lectures from Baldwin, he also incorporates pieces of everything from John Wayne westerns and The Birth of a Nation to seldom-seen images of lynchings, Klan rallies and the hateful slurs scrawled across the placards of rednecks protesting school integration. The overall effect is one of both disconcertment and clarification, at once revealing an under-explored side of the historical footage we’ve all seen and juxtaposing it with cultural touchstones to which we can all relate. Peck’s prowess as a filmmaker is principally displayed, not only through this expansive knowledge of his subject, but through his willingness to use the documentary form to confront some harsh truths with the exhaustively researched footage there to back up his assertions.
As we hear Baldwin express his pessimism about the prospects of race relations in America, or recount the personal tragedy of losing Evers, X and King to the assassin’s bullet, it’s impossible to avoid the implications of his words for our contemporary world. Peck’s most important accomplishment with I Am Not Your Negro is in his ability to resurrect the voice of a man who died 30 years ago and present that perspective with the relevance and immediacy that it still carries, never succumbing to idle hero-worship. If a society that forgets its history is condemned to repeat it, it’s to our great advantage that we have the capacity to revisit the thoughts of men like Baldwin, whose clarity of vision is unfortunately just as necessary now as it was in his lifetime. Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.