I Am Not Your Negro arrives in wide release just in time for the beginning of Black History Month, and the timing couldn’t be better. The Oscar-nominated documentary on the life, work and prescience of black writer and social critic James Baldwin should be considered required viewing. It’s valuable not only for gaining insight into the mind of a historically important figure, or for understanding the context of race relations during the civil rights era. It’s also a vital tool in illustrating how Baldwin’s incisive observations on life remain true today.
The film, by Haitian director Raoul Peck, takes a simple, effective approach, giving voice to Baldwin through narration by Samuel L. Jackson, drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work and letters to his publisher. Most of the content comes from a correspondence in the 1970s surrounding Baldwin’s unfinished book on Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. These conversations are juxtaposed with images and footage of the man himself and news clips from the civil rights era — and, crucially, recent footage from Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
Though the words were written decades ago, it’s both astounding and shameful that Baldwin’s writings explain the past yet sound like they could have been published last week. Peck tackles Baldwin’s writing by topic, from American identity to stereotypes and representation in popular culture, alienation from a church Baldwin claims is refusing to practice selfless love, and white denial of the brutality faced by civil rights protesters.
Peck backs up his subject’s words with images from Ferguson, New York, and other protests, showing us that while Baldwin may not have predicted the events of the last few years, he wouldn’t have been surprised by them.
It’s a necessary crash-course in racial relations. But I Am Not Your Negro is also a compelling overview — and for some perhaps, an introduction — to Baldwin’s work and character. The stony conviction of Jackson’s reading pairs well with the clips Peck includes of an expressive, smooth, and expansive Baldwin in speeches and interviews. The writer comes across as he surely was: a brilliant, observant, and effortlessly cool individual, with the enviable ability to succinctly and plainly state the truth.
I Am Not Your Negro is a fitting tribute and introduction to James Baldwin — stylish, to-the-point, and full of truths as timely now as they were when Baldwin first put them into writing. Whether you’re looking to further understand the racial history that brought us to this current moment, get an introduction to Baldwin and his work, or simply watch a documentary that’s made with great vision and understanding of its subject, I Am Not Your Negro is not to be missed.