Based on an unfinished book by memoirist James Baldwin, this superb documentary charts the history of black activism during the civil rights movement.
Masterfully addressing the American racial divide, past and present, director Raoul Peck’s six-years-in-the-making documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is a galvanizing, ominous film, thrumming with a sense of history repeating itself. It's inspired by 30 pages from James Baldwin’s unfinished final book, Remember This House. Before his 1987 death, Baldwin intended to tell the story of being black in America through the lives—and deaths—of three of his friends: activist Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck does a magnificent job of honoring Baldwin’s concept, counterposing images from the civil rights movement–era with bruising clips from today’s protests and police beatings.
Bringing a sense of gravitas to Baldwin’s words is Samuel L. Jackson, whose decidedly nonfurious narration is his finest performance to date, bar none. Apart from some calmly defiant footage of Baldwin himself on The Dick Cavett Show, dragging from a cigarette and speaking truth to power, the emotional frustration is a quiet brew, deepened by Jackson’s almost resigned delivery. His voice reflects the weight of looking back on decades of carnage and unstoppable momentum. Baldwin enjoyed great personal success but always at a cost; he talks about working poolside on a Hollywood version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Billy Dee Williams, until they both heard about MLK getting shot. The documentary nails that sense of progress and regression alike.
Racial tensions feel starker than ever after a bruising campaign season that exploited them, while white nationalist winds continue to blow worldwide. Various filmmakers have stepped up lately, with ambitious documentaries that explore the history and endurance of slavery, along with evolving ideas of African-American identity, notably Ava DuVernay’s enraged prison exposé 13TH and Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour history of celebrity and race, O.J.: Made in America. But there hasn’t been as concise, targeted and rigorous an examination of the problems of being black, smart and outspoken, until now.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Samuel L. Jackson