Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro is as prescient today as James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir Remember This House, the research notes for which form the basis of Peck’s film, would have been had it been published before Baldwin’s death in 1987, or in the 1960s when the three figures whom both the memoir and the film focus on, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., were alive and active. The decision to ground the film in Baldwin’s writing, and indeed in multiple pieces of footage of him speaking in public, is the great success of Peck’s film. It is Baldwin’s unique insight into the racial plight of America that makes the film so engaging, and seeing clips from appearances on television shows and rallies helped to bring the great orator and social commentator more keenly into focus.
Early on the audience is told that Baldwin wants to, and wants others to, examine the relationship between the three civil rights campaigners and show how their contrasting philosophies led to friction in a movement that was fighting for a single cause. There is a brief look at the disagreements between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., in which Baldwin notes how the two influenced each other and grew closer as time passed, but this is one aspect of the film which felt somewhat lacking. Perhaps Baldwin, had he lived long enough to finish Remember This House, would have gone into such analysis in much more detail, but there was an opportunity for Peck to explore a side of the civil rights movement which is not often discussed. Instead, the filmmaker has chosen to stick closely to Baldwin’s writing, and this perhaps is where the film’s only serious flaw lies; by tying itself so firmly to Baldwin’s writing it leaves itself little room to manoeuvre into areas which Baldwin failed to cover in much detail. Having said this, what the audience does get from the film’s narration, performed by Samuel L. Jackson, is Baldwin’s sadness, a sadness grounded in a sense of hopelessness at the passivity of the American public and the American political and legal system. The oppression of the black community has so often been met with anger and resentment, and perhaps rightly so, that it is this sadness that makes Baldwin’s viewpoint different, and worth paying attention to.
One of the biggest challenges when making a film such as I Am Not Your Negro is to make it stand out from the plethora of civil rights documentaries that are released online and on television every year, and in doing so to make it a cinematic experience. The rights to use Baldwin’s writing certainly gives the film an edge on its competition, but there are a number of technical elements which contribute towards making it worthy of a place on the big screen. The most noteworthy of these is Russian composer Alexei Aigui’s score; a textured and varied piece of work which reflects what the audience is seeing perfectly. Archive footage of forced segregation and police brutality play out to dark and foreboding strings and drums, and is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s score for The Childhood of a Leader, in particular the scenes of fascist rallies and marches in the film’s final moments. Aigui’s score, along with the excellently selected and embedded archive footage, affords the audience an understanding, however small, of the real terror and oppression that the black community lived with day in day out.
If nothing else, I Am Not Your Negro has made me want to go back and revisit the works of James Baldwin, a man who’s insight and intellect are so rare that they deserve to be given a platform such as this film, which will hopefully spread his ideas to many people who would otherwise have never come across him. It would be fair to say that we have not progressed anywhere near as far as we would like or as far as we should have in bringing equality to people of all ethnicities and race, and so we must continue to give a voice to inspirational individuals such as those depicted in Raoul Peck’s superb documentary.