In a letter to his editor in 1979 James Baldwin wrote of his desire to begin ‘Remember This House’ a book that would revisit the American South in order to capture through personal recollections the lives of his three murdered friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro provides the cinematic resolution to the book Baldwin was never able to finish. One that envelops the viewer into Baldwin’s consciousness in order to explore American society, race, identity and their fundamental interconnection.
I Am Not Your Negro can be understood as an extension of Baldwin’s work because the author’s presence is profoundly felt in its every moment. With the exception of archival footage, every word is Baldwin’s original prose. Peck’s removal of an interpretative framework speaks to his desire to act only as ‘the messenger’ of Baldwin’s work. I Am Not Your Negro establishes an uninterrupted relationship between Baldwin and the viewer, whilst Peck’s use of Baldwin’s prose (brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson) as the film’s only guiding force situates us inside the mind of the author.
From here we enjoy a singularly privileged perspective. Baldwin’s analysis of American society is both intellectually expansive and intensely personal. His relationships with Malcolm, Martin and Medgar illuminate these figures in a light rarely glimpsed. Peck sculpts holistic identities. Men who often loom over history as the orchestrators of radical change are shown as fathers, husbands and friends. We are able to see their very public deaths through an unusually private lens. This is most memorably achieved by the inclusion of Baldwin’s immediate responses to the deaths of each of his friends. For Medgar he writes; ‘The blue sky seemed to descend like a blanket. And I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t cry. I just remembered his face, a bright, blunt, handsome face and his weariness that he wore like his skin.’
Peck’s unique prose driven form creates a striking and meaningful relationship between image and word- a visual language. Baldwin’s work remains unaltered, but Peck’s careful layering of voice and image, which allows each medium to inform the meaning of the other, moulds our experience. The film gains an atmospheric poeticism as archival footage, photographs, and more abstracted visions of American landscape blend to ensure the full impact of Baldwin’s work is truly felt. I am reminded of a scene where we move with eerie stillness down the course of a southern river where the sky is obscured by trees with words that recall ‘how the tatters of clothes from a lynched body hung flapping in the trees for days.’
Although violence is an undeniable part of I Am Not Your Negro’s fabric it does not appear gratuitous. By framing moments of violence with Baldwin’s analysis Peck locates their catastrophic consequences. We are forced to confront devastating images of prejudice, racist violence and police brutality. Such viewing is disturbing but essential, as Baldwin famously wrote ‘nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Violence in I Am Not Your Negro serves yet another essential purpose. Peck’s careful positioning of historic violence alongside distinctly modern and disturbingly familiar footage works to forcefully announce just how urgent Baldwin’s work remains to contemporary society.
To write only on the form of I Am Not Your Negro as I have done is to only scratch the surface of this film. I resist writing further to treat Peck’s 10 years in the making project with the same sensitivity he gave to Baldwin’s. I conclude then to preserve the generosity of this film, which appears like a work of art, allowing meaning to exist freely and belong to whoever stands before it.
Where can you find it?
It is available on Amazon Prime and American Netflix. You can rent it for a couple of $$ on the other platforms.
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