NYFF: In Raoul Peck’s 'I Am Not Your Negro,' James Baldwin Speaks to Now
Like Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro travels a straight, well-researched path from the darkest tragedies of American history to the ones that plague the country today. Both films filter African-American life through the prism of the societal construct called race, but while DuVernay’s dissertation focuses on mass incarceration and the constitutional means by which that was made possible, Peck’s thesis observes the daily struggles of Black folks in America from the brilliant, pointed view of James Baldwin. Baldwin’s work, as both a speaker and an essayist, remains as crucial and relevant as ever, so much so that almost thirty years after his death there is still chatter surrounding who could possibly succeed him as a master of Black social commentary. I Am Not Your Negro suggests that there is simply no viable replacement.
Peck chooses as his jumping-off point Baldwin’s Remember This House, an unfinished work in which the author sought to discuss the assassinations of three prominent Black leaders of the civil rights era: Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew each, and their deaths “devastated his universe.” The daunting task of documenting their lives eventually took its toll on the writer, who had only completed thirty pages of this project before his death in 1987. I Am Not Your Negro presents a good chunk of this material on its soundtrack, masterfully syncing Baldwin’s words to a series of images that bind past and present. The narration also incorporates large sections from other prominent Baldwin works like The Fire Next Time and his most well-known essay, “The Devil Finds Work.”
I Am Not Your Negro assigns Samuel L. Jackson the task of bringing Baldwin’s words to life, and while his voice is instantly recognizable, Jackson uses none of his usual vocal swagger. What he does instead isn’t so much an imitation of Baldwin as an embodiment of Baldwin’s essence. Jackson nails the cadences in Baldwin’s speech, punctuating his words with humor, anger, exasperation, and hope — sometimes in the same sentence. At times, there’s an almost feminine quality to Jackson’s delivery, a softness that carries surprising power. He avoids the trap of sounding reverent, opting instead for a casual bluntness that’s true to the man he’s portraying. This isn’t just narration, it’s a full-blooded, lived-in performance, one of Jackson’s best.
In addition to Jackson, there is Baldwin himself, appearing in archival footage from university speeches and appearances on The Dick Cavett Show. That he and Jackson peacefully coexist in the film is a testament to how cleverly Peck and his editor, Alexandra Strauss, piece together the material. Granted complete access by Baldwin’s estate, Peck excels at the daunting task of selecting a small fraction of the author’s vast output to service his 95-minute feature. It took him over half a decade to do so, and his meticulousness pays off in the most satisfying of ways. Readers of Baldwin’s work already know that it’s as timely and relevant today as it was when he wrote it decades ago. I Am Not Your Negro powerfully highlights this point for the uninitiated.
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