Times can seem tough and when people are scared and confused, they often seek guidance from those older and wiser still alive. When trying to make sense of this crazy world, some might dig a little deeper, hoping for guidance or that special wisdom of a deceased personality. A person who lived in a different time, but nonetheless faced similar struggles in his/her day, was then able to articulate in clear hindsight some learned insight.
It could be your grandmother; you try to relate her understandings of her days and as her words play out in your head, juxtaposing them against your own experiences and the world you live in, searching for some universal element which can link the two eras together and shed light on some unspoken truth.
That’s the best analogy I can relate to the experience watching I Am Not Your Negro, the amazing new documentary from director Raoul Peck. He elevates the perfectly phrased prose of social critic and civil rights activist James Baldwin with engaging and sophisticated filmmaking, making Baldwin’s words sound like a prophet of sorts we can learn from. This isn’t a conventional biographical doc that plays like an illustrated timeline of Baldwin’s major life events, though there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie (I imagine one just like it will arrive soon).
Rather, Peck’s film presents a fascinating personality, how his experiences formed his perceptions of his society, and shows how those insights remain relevant today. That may not sound that substantial, but the way in Peck avoids any easy route as a filmmaker which makes that previous statement all the more worthwhile.
The film centers around an autobiographical manuscript Remember This House (read by Samuel L. Jackson). Left unfinished after his death in 1987, the memoir includes Baldwin reminiscing growing up as a black child in the 1930s, watching Hollywood movies containing depictions of African Americans and race relations, and his personal relationships with prominent civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Medgar Evers. Peck uses Jackson’s skilled delivery of Baldwin’s prose as the only voiceover narration. He also weaves archival footage and pictures in and around the manuscript.
But what’s special is Peck’s successfully deliberate selections of the media presented in the film. Footage of the Watts Riots are presented alongside of the upheaval in Ferguson. Clips from the present day are spliced with images from Baldwin’s day, and even stills long before Baldwin was ever born.
To be honest, my first impression was an ramshackle mix of sights and sounds loosely presented in a disorderly collage. I was confused why Peck was jumping around time so much, especially as there’s no modern voiceover talking head interviews. Normally, if a documentary were to have such an eclectic assortment of archival media it would follow something similar to this structure:
1. Have a voiceover or talking head discussing the Watts Riots.
2. Show footage of the Watts Riots
3. Cut to a transition of a voiceover or talking head stating CLEARLY a specific parallel to the civil rights protests of the present day.
4. Show footage of Ferguson protests.
But again, Peck restricts himself from any modern voiceover or talking head interviews. He only uses a manuscript written by a man who’s been dead for nearly thirty years. Baldwin obviously has no idea Ferguson and thus a clearly stated transition to the present day is thus impossible. And I than I realized Peck’s decision making and it does the utmost justice for Baldwin’s argument.
A talking head would have to describe Baldwin in a historical context, thus indirectly dating Baldwin’s theories. Peck is blurring time together, and does so in such a sly and seamless fashion to make these conclusions as provocative today as when Baldwin was alive. And since no talking head praises Baldwin’s work, his ideas remain up for debate, which makes them a living and breathing things. Straightforward approvals of Baldwin’s philosophies could potentially make viewers hesitant to question the context of Baldwin’s rhetoric. Peck wisely refrains from showing anyone from today’s era praising Baldwin. In fact, he inserts footage of people disagreeing and arguing with Baldwin right to his own face, ensuring that the audience consider every word stated and ensures the audience remain an active and inquisitive. It’s an engaging and effective method.
I Am Not Your Negro is an effective piece of filmmaking, demonstrating why the context of James Baldwin’s insights on race relations needs to be heard. America is fractured today, and a lot of that has to do with its people avoiding the fundamental questions about why racial struggles continues to persist in this country. It’s impossible to actively watch this film and not reevaluate the arguments of all groups expressing political and social philosophies today. Baldwin belonged to no group in his day, an objective observer documenting how he saw why his country was fractured. In a time when people can’t seem to listen to anyone who might disagree with them, his is a voice that needs to be heard. What a noble use of the cinematic medium.