Masterfully addressing the American racial divide – past and present – director Raoul Peck’s six-years-in-the-making documentary, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ thrums with a sense of history repeating itself. It’s inspired by 30 pages from the writer and intellectual James Baldwin’s unfinished final book, ‘Remember This House’. Before his death in 1987, Baldwin intended to tell the story of being black in America through the lives – and deaths – of three of his friends, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers.
Peck does a magnificent job of honouring Baldwin’s concept in the film, counterposing images from the civil rights movement with clips from today’s protests and police beatings. Bringing a sense of gravitas to Baldwin’s words is Samuel L Jackson, whose non-furious narration is his finest performance to date – his almost resigned delivery deepening the emotional frustration. We do actually hear from Baldwin too, in some calmly defiant footage from a late ’60s talkshow, as he drags on a cigarette and speaks truth to power.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ joins a handful of recent documentaries exploring the history and legacy of slavery, along with evolving ideas of African-American identity – notably Ava DuVernay’s prison exposé ‘13th’ and Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour ‘OJ: Made in America’. But there hasn’t been as concise, targeted and rigorous an examination of the problems of being smart, outspoken and black, until now.