James Baldwin, the African-American novelist and essayist, was at the forefront of chronicling the American Civil Rights Movement. When the author died in 1987, he left behind a partial manuscript titled Remember This House. In the work, Baldwin planned to examine the Civil Rights Movement from the perspectives of its three fallen icons: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. The first forty pages of the unfinished manuscript form the basis of I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary/video essay from director Raoul Peck.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson using Baldwin’s words, the film examines the struggles of African Americans in the days of segregation and institutional discrimination, drawing parallels to the racial tension that still permeates our country to this day. From the black-and-white footage of food counter “sit-ins” and forced desegregation to recent coverage of the riots in Ferguson and the killing of Travon Martin, I Am Not Your Negro questions whether the improvements in race relations and equality are as great as modern America would like to believe.
The vintage footage of Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show and participating in various debates also serves to create a biopic of sorts. As a black man dealing with issues of sexual identity in the 1940s and 50s, Baldwin left the United States in his mid-20s and lived the life of an expatriate in France as did many of the black jazz musicians (Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew) and artists of that time. As the Civil Rights Movement gained a head of steam, Baldwin felt compelled to return to the U.S. to chronicle the march toward equality and participate in the intellectual arguments that helped fuel change.
The film offers some eerily prescient observations. At one point during a 1960s-era interview with Dick Cavett, the talk show host asks Baldwin what he would think if there were an African-American president elected “forty years from now”. (President Obama was elected almost exactly 40 years after that question was uttered on live television.) Baldwin ponders the question and states he would wonder why it took so long.
After years playing over-the-top characters with wacky accents and speaking voices (The Hateful Eight, Kingsman: The Secret Service), it’s easy to lose sight of how eloquently Samuel L. Jackson can narrate a film. The authority of his voice adds to the gravity of the proceedings and creates a truly moving experience from material that could have easily degenerated into a random hodgepodge of historical footage. As it is, I Am Not Your Negro is not your typical documentary, but that’s a good thing. It plays like an impressionistic video collage, creating a variety of emotions in the viewer rather than pursuing a traditional linear narrative. The film offers equal parts hope and despair, and given the current political climate, that’s an accurate summation of the state of modern America.
[I Am Not Your Negro opens at Landmark Theatre locations across the country on February 3, 2017.]
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.