FILM REVIEW: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
“Not everything that is faced can be changed…but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Running through the veins of Raoul Peck’s documentary-essay is this vital and impassioned message, written by the American novelist James Baldwin in the pages of an unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House, on which this film is based. The proposed book was intended to be a collection of Baldwin’s memoirs and reflections on the civil rights movement, focusing on the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who had all been close friends of his.
Baldwin’s conflicted relationship with his home country and its dark history forms the basis of I Am Not Your Negro, which is presented to us in the style of a collage, weaving archival footage, photographs and movie excerpts as well as clips taken from talk-show interviews with Baldwin himself. These electrifying clips of Baldwin speaking are easily some of the film’s stand out moments; he is endlessly watchable, eloquent and poised and able to render his critics speechless using the power and strength of words. His vocation was his weapon, and the film celebrates this. I almost wish that the documentary had told us more about him, as one of Peck’s miss-steps is to assume that the audience is already familiar with Baldwin’s legacy. I would wager (sadly) that most viewers outside of America won’t have heard of him, and so Peck runs the risk of alienating his audience by not giving them at least the bare facts of Baldwin’s life and work to begin with.
Providing us with a narrative thread is Samuel L. Jackson, who brings a much needed sense of grounding to the film’s patchwork of anecdotes and musings. He gives a fine voice performance as he enacts the letters Baldwin wrote to his publisher during the book proposal’s conception, and is as nuanced here as he ever has been.
Naturally the film is at times difficult to watch, and the choices that have been made in terms of style and editing seem designed to drum up the audience’s emotive response. The mixture of sound design and music is excellent, pasted together to match the collage style that the documentary so expertly employs. It’s refreshing to see a documentary take risks with its sound rather than letting it sink into the background, and here the risks pay off. Alexandra Strauss, the film’s editor, has also made the right decisions in how she has chosen to craft the story, out of mostly archival footage and the words Baldwin left behind. The raw material has been sculpted so that Baldwin’s voice and vision remain clear, with the film’s message steadily building momentum and ending on a crescendo of a question that seems poised to invite a response, and hopefully a discussion, from the audience.
As accomplished as the film is in its style and the strength of its material, based on subject matter alone it’s difficult not to compare I Am Not Your Negro with the documentary which beat it to the Best Documentary Oscar this year, O.J.: Made in America. This was a film that was so comprehensive in its retelling of black American history that any subsequent documentaries attempting to do a similar thing will inevitably seem flimsy. And although Baldwin’s message of America needing to face up to its darkness in order to elicit change rings powerfully through every frame of this work, and invigorates everybody involved in the film’s making with passion and purpose, I am just not convinced that 30 pages of an unfinished manuscript is enough fuel for a whole documentary. At times the meat of the film felt a little thin, maybe even under-developed. Perhaps it is to the filmmaker’s credit, though, that the longing to know more about Baldwin that I was left with after watching I Am Not Your Negro compelled me to purchase one of his books. Maybe that was Peck’s plan all along?