Documentaries and Books

I Am Not Your Negro

Late in his life, James Baldwin began writing a book about three of his friends, all of whom had been assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The book, entitled Remember This House, was to be a reflection both on their remarkable lives as well as on the nature of America. Baldwin unfortunately never got very far with the project, leaving behind at his death only a 30-page draft. Thankfully, a talented filmmaker named Raoul Peck picked up the pieces by using the draft and assorted filmed interviews of and lectures by Baldwin to weave together I Am Not Your Negro.

Effectively narrated with the right touch of anguish by Samuel L. Jackson, this 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary could not have had a better screenwriter. The words are almost entirely those of Baldwin himself, an acknowledged master of the language. The film also helps the viewer appreciate Baldwin’s comparable facility with silence. Whether giving a prepared talk or speaking off the cuff, Baldwin’s cadence is a thing of beauty: a devastating insight, an memorable phrase, and then just long enough of a pause (never with an “um” or an “uhhh”, just silence) to let it sink in before his next powerhouse observation.

The documentary also illuminates the content of Baldwin’s thoughts about race and America, and obviously, it’s not frothy and uplifting. Baldwin is angry at, yet in his way, also loving of, his country. He is weighed down by the burden of American racial oppression, yet says “I am an optimist, because I’m alive”. And he’s in my opinion undeniably correct in seeing the fate of Blacks, Whites, and the nation as fundamentally tied together. As my Baldwin-quoting collaborator Ekow Yankah once wrote “A furnace fed by racism eventually consumes us all“.

This could have easily been a talky and boring film, but Peck never forgets that he’s making a movie rather than a book. The editing is crisp, the images well-chosen, and the pacing is exactly right. Some of the juxtapositions between newsreels, movie clips, and the like with Baldwin’s words are a bit overdrawn (e.g., the Doris Day movie clips), but overall Peck masterfully uses the power of cinema to give Baldwin’s words even more impact.

Some of the putatively positive reviews of this film contained dreadful comments like “All of White America should have to watch this movie”, as if Peck had assembled a fourth-rate implicit bias training that was a punishment to be endured rather than a skillfully made, compulsively watchable film. To listen to James Baldwin is to be in the presence of greatness, and Peck shows greatness of his own in translating the writer, thinker, and advocate so effectively to the screen.