Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is a documentary, yes, but it likely bears little resemblance to the kinds of non-fiction works you imagine. Watching the film does not feel like reading a textbook, which comes pre-loaded with conclusions drawn and lessons to learn. Instead, Peck’s work captures the sensation of reading a novel by its subject, James Baldwin. In this format, we must connect the dots ourselves and draw our own meaning.
Peck structures the film around the spine of an unfinished novel Baldwin left behind tracing the history of America through the lives of three black activists: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. As Baldwin so succinctly and accurately states, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America.” His history charts the friction that results in a society unable to assign roles for its black members once they no longer pick the cotton. And since whites lack the imagination to see black revolutionaries, America suffers from a kind of “emotional poverty.”
To use too many of Baldwin’s words or summarize his ideas only serves to bastardize your own experience of grappling with them. Peck makes Baldwin’s prose easy to understand but never simple to digest, in part because it maintains a stubborn relevancy to our current moral malaise. From the white denial of racism to the myth of colorblindness, “I Am Not Your Negro” practically drips with modern applications. There’s an angle and a foothold for just about everyone.
Mine was Baldwin’s fascination with popular culture and how it at once plays out our national conflicts and presents a fantasy of social arrangements. Culture has a way of numbing us, blinding us from seeing our real issues and covering our racial fault lines. But at the same time, the underlying tensions can reflect the country as a whole. His analysis of cinematic heroes as white people who took vengeance into their own hands because they saw it as theirs to take is a scary perspective that will not soon leave my head when viewing classical Hollywood cinema. B+ /