“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
It would be an easy feat to find a better-realized or more academically thorough documentary than I Am Not Your Negro among recent releases, given the medium’s current creativity boom, but it’d be unlikely to find one more philosophically resonant in today’s political climate. In its better moments, this critical essay by late author & political thinker James Baldwin (directed by Raoul Peck & narrated by an unusually restrained Samuel L. Jackson) feels downright necessary. It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp. As the film contextualizes its questions & arguments in a 2010s setting by incorporating Ferguson protest footage & surveillance videos of recent police abuses in contemporary black communities, it makes this line of philosophical probing feel essential for modern survival, even if the individual results can be frustratingly incomplete.
The incomplete, scattered nature of I Am Not Your Negro is, in many ways, unavoidable. Peck constructs this documentary around an unfinished manuscript Baldwin did not see to completion before his death in the 1980s. The initial concept of the manuscript sounds fairly straightforward: a portrait of the Civil Rights 60s told through a triptych of profiles on Baldwin’s personal and professional acquaintances Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers. I’ll admit up front that I’m barely, if at all familiar with Evers as a public figure and the movie does little to profile him in any significant way other than to point out that he was the first of the three men to be assassinated by angered white segregationists. Baldwin himself largely becomes the third corner of this triptych as he reflects on his own political positions of the time, mostly in how he was a perpetual outsider. Trying to find a personal balance between the indignant radicalization of Malcolm X and the measured reason of Dr. King, Baldwin would ultimately feel little more than isolation & deep resentment for the world at large. He felt alienated both by the NAACP and the Black Panthers; he recalls Malcolm X calling Dr. King an Uncle Tom on national television long before the two found their own ideological middle ground; he explores conflicted urges to both move far away from America and to maintain a connection with his community. In many ways I Am Not Your Negro stops being about King, X, and Evers at all, instead focusing entirely on Baldwin’s inner psyche (like the way Heart of a Dog is more about Laurie Anderson than it is about dogs). He recounts his lifelong troubled relationship with America by reflecting on the way its racism bubbles to the surface in its advertising, its cinema, its televised broadcasts. Baldwin himself frequently appears on television and in filmed college lectures, reaching to express something intangible, but deeply grotesque about modern race relations. He draws a line between active racism & uncaring ignorance, making a case that both are cancerous to the nation’s spiritual health. None of this is allowed to play out onscreen in a strictly historical context, despite the manuscript’s original intent. The issue is explained to be as relevant & distressing now as it’s ever been, a problem without a solution.
If I Am Not Your Negro has an Achilles heel, it’s that its subject is often more fascinating than its form. A couple cheesy Chicago blues soundtrack choices, some cheap-looking typewriter text, and Jackson’s overly gritty narration can occasionally distract from the film’s main attraction: Baldwin’s personal philosophies & political ideology. Baldwin expresses disgust & exhaustion with American racism in a deeply personal mode of cultural criticism that somehow cuts to the heart of the problem in a way that an academic history lesson on Civil Rights protest & educational desegregation never could. Peck has some interesting ideas of his own that support these explorations through post-modern montage. Images of the Space Race, Black Lives Matter protests, 1930s cinema, reality television, and Martin Luther King Jr bobbleheads all mix together in a disorienting gestalt that matches the uncertain, incomplete nature of Baldwin’s central text. Not every gamble pays off, but the documentary is often fascinating in its looseness and its attempts to reach beyond its means. If no other good came from I Am Not Your Negro than raising the public profile of someone who was obviously an immensely talented writer & profound political thinker, then the film would still be a worthwhile effort. It’s in reaching beyond that basic, biographic artist profile formula to apply James Baldwin’s theories & anxieties to a modern context where the documentary becomes something more, something truly special. It’s a work that tries to make sense of the modern world by looking back to the criticism of the past, only to take disgust in the realization that not much has changed in the decades since. It’s not a pretty story or even a complete one, but it’s one that needs to be told.