James Baldwin – for the uninitiated – was a 20th-century luminary noted for his writings and political activism. He rose to prominence in the 1950’s, espousing a political consciousness that captivated the White intelligentsia and paragons of Black history alike. Baldwin did not separate artistry from politics; they were part and parcel of his very being. I Am Not Your Negro begins with Samuel L. Jackson’s resonant baritone, his familiar voice a befitting conduit for Baldwin’s poignant musings. Awash in color, the film has an uncommon beauty not typically found in documentaries. Its rich aesthetic is a provocative contradiction of the brutality it depicted, as the film highlights the abject cruelty of a not-so-bygone era.
The film is loosely intended to carry forth Baldwin’s untold artistic vision intertwining the stories of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medger Evers. The film dances around these three narratives in a disjointed fashion, splicing current events throughout the film. Director Raoul Peck brilliantly draws a parallel between the police brutality of the Jim Crow era and the impetus of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Baldwin was Black and he was proud, but he was accessible to White America because he did not hate them. He explored the way Blackness had to be packaged to make it palatable, and Peck masterfully uses cinematic examples to underscore Baldwin’s profound speech. Hollywood is rife with the stereotyping and marginalization of which Baldwin spoke, and the film was comprehensive in its discussion of film and media’s effect on the collective psyche of Black and White Americans alike.
Art inspires, but at times it can make us uncomfortable. Let me state the obvious that this film is not for everyone, and the title alone is enough to keep some viewers away. It is not a call to arms, but rather an attempt to rouse the consciousness and to demand that White America take an unflinching look in the mirror. Powerful and provocative, I Am Not Your Negro is one of the better documentaries I’ve seen.