Raoul Peck’s impeccable and rigorous film I Am Not Your Negro comes at a moment when cinema is creating new conversations about race. Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, Denzel Washington’s Fences, Hidden Figures, and Loving – all contend in different ways with oppression, prejudice, and racial hatred. Read On…
Peck’s film takes as its point of departure, James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, a treatment about the murder of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin’s words, read by Samuel L. Jackson, are woven together with archival clips from the author’s many speeches, television appearances, and interviews. But in all this vast compendium of footage, one sequence leaps out.
In 1965, Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. were invited to debate each other in the august setting of Cambridge University Union Hall. The topic of their discussion was “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?”
It is fascinating to watch the debate in its entirety, from the opening introductions, crisply enunciated by a tuxedo-clad young man, to the audience (largely white) rapt with attention. Baldwin was the first to speak and what he said pertained not only to that particular moment in 1965, it also has relevance to this current moment in American history, and curiously enough, equal resonance to a hundred years earlier when the 15th Amendment was first made part of the US Constitution.
In his own words: “This is not an overstatement. I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip. For nothing. For nothing. The southern oligarchy which until today has so much power in Washington … was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave.”
What is most remarkable about this debate, was not only Baldwin’s eloquence, nor even how eerily prescient some of his statements proved, but his ability to locate and make tangible, the profound disconnect between the myth of the American dream and the reality for the black population. Watching Peck’s film, you feel it in your gut, the deeper truth revealed and explicated.
In all of the footage featured in I Am Not Your Negro, it is Baldwin’s rationality and humanity that shines out — clear, irrevocable and freighted with an unmistakable note of warning. To deny any group of people their essential humanity has repercussions not just for the victims of oppression, but also for the perpetrators.
At a moment, when the soul of the nation seems perilously endangered, Baldwin’s assertion that “The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story,“ hits home in new way.
Betsy Bozdech: Sobering, artful, and all too timely even 30 years after writer James Baldwin’s death, this examination of race in America is a thought-provoking gut punch. Narrator Samuel L. Jackson offers perhaps the most nuanced performance of his career as he shares Baldwin’s heartbreakingly prophetic prose. “We are our history,” indeed.
Anne Brodie: Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary celebrates the eloquent, acerbic and radical James Baldwin in his own words. Baldwin’s timeline of racial struggle in America is sobering, and not much has changed since his day. His lyricism is engaging, and his message is tough. This film is important and riveting.
Pam Grady: Using writer James Baldwin’s words (as voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) and a wealth of archival materials, Haitian filmmaker Raul Peck paints not just a fascinating portrait of the artist and his times but also connects Baldwin’s words–written decades ago–to our current moment of political and social upheaval and emerging movements like Black Lives Matter. The documentary is remarkable for its urgency as its stunning power.
Nell Minow: The brilliant juxtaposition of Baldwin’s fierce and fearless commentary with images from contemporary failures of social and economic justice make this film immediate and vital.
Candice Frederick: Astoundingly relevant, especially in today’s Trump America.
Cynthia Fuchs: “Look at my African American.” It’s a good bet that Donald Trump, who infamously made this assertion about a crowd member during his campaign last year, has not read James Baldwin. But James Baldwin has read him, which is to say, Baldwin knew and anticipated men like Trump, understood their fears and their needs. Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary reminds the rest of us how much — how deeply and how incisively — Baldwin knew and anticipated. As the documentary presents Baldwin’s resistance, we might now take heart in it and also borrow from it. Built on Baldwin’s unfinished project, “Remember This House”, a meditation on the intertwining legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and also on the nature of memory itself, the documentary pulls together strands of history and struggle, strength and tragedy, including bits of Baldwin’s prose read by Samuel L. Jackson as well as resonant archival footage and recent images, showing survivors and fighters. As much as it thinks through memory, I Am Not Your Negro is insistently forward-looking, heartening and galvanizing. It’s a film of its moment. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin: A brilliant, timely and long overdue tribute to James Baldwin and his potent observations about racism in America.
Leba Hertz: Easily one of the best and most important documentaries of the year!
Sheila Roberts: Raoul Peck’s incendiary documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, takes a provocative look at race relations in modern America inspired by 20th century novelist James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House.” Powerful imagery coupled with Samuel L. Jackson’s compelling narration transform it into a profoundly moving experience that is also remarkably timely.
Title: I Am Not Your Negro
Director: Raoul Peck
Release Date: February 3, 2017
Running Time: 95 minutes
Principal Cast: Samuel Jackson (Narrator), with archival footage of James Baldwin, Dick Cavett
Screenwriters: James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Production Companies: Velvet Film
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Anne Brodie, Betsy Boxdech, Candice Frederick, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Perri Nemiroff, Sheila Lynn Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Jeanne Wolf, Dorothy Woodend
Written by Dorothy Woodend, edited by Jennifer Merin, social media by Sandra Kraisirideja