Raoul Peck’s extraordinary and necessary essay film I Am Not Your Negro is more than a movie. For white audiences willing to absorb it, it’s nothing less than an education, the kind you’re unlikely to receive in school. While it’s impossible for a Caucasian to experience life as an African-American, Peck’s alternately somber and incendiary collage places the majority race closer to the hearts, minds and souls of this long abused, aggrieved, stereotyped and profiled minority than any film in memory. There is wisdom to be found in every one of its 93 minutes.
A lot of this has to do with the author of nearly every word we hear, James Baldwin. Peck draws his text from Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript from the influential writer and social critic. Baldwin’s personal treatise — read in voice-over by an uncharacteristically sober Samuel L. Jackson — explores the “race issue” with both rage and poetry, sweeping generalizations and curious equivocation alike.
Remember This House is inspired by the work, and sometimes divided worldviews, of three martyrs of the civil rights movement — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — but it inevitably splinters into personal asides, trenchant observations and prescient forecasts. While Baldwin says he doesn’t subscribe to Malcolm’s invectives against whites, he also deviates from King’s nonviolent ethos by admitting that he has “often wished to murder one or two.” He asserts that “the West has no moral authority,” and that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. And it is not a pretty story.”
While Peck occasionally lets archival footage speak for itself — including an insightful interview with Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show and a captivating lecture Baldwin presented to an all-white audience at an Ivy League university — his film is most radical when it visually and aurally wanders. Peck supplements Baldwin’s musings, theories, criticism, polemics and reminiscences with a soundtrack and imagery both complementary and contrapuntal, often at the same time.
Surprising, sprawling satellite imagery of the red planet infuse Baldwin’s observation that for cosseted Americans removed from the Jim Crow South, the events of Birmingham might as well have occurred on Mars. Similarly, Peck shows us a sunny 1960s travelogue full of frolicking Caucasians, only to cut away from the visuals, laying the Madison Avenue ad-speak atop painful footage of the Watts riots happening way out in the ozone. The Ferguson unrest of 2014, viewed by most of us from the comfort of cable-news hysteria, is presented as the distant concern it was, and is, to many Americans: Peck adjusts the Ferguson footage so that it’s black-and-white and grainy, emphasizing how little has changed in 50 years.
I Am Not Your Negro’s soundtrack is rich with howling blues, protest folk and furious Glassian strings, and his images are suffused with appropriate film-history detritus illustrating and expanding on Baldwin’s theories of what might be called the White Gaze. Clips from Dance, Fools, Dance to the silent Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the original Imitation of Life to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant flit across Peck’s canvas, as carefully and politically chosen as the images Jean-Luc Godard selected for his own vital essay film, Histoire(s) du Cinema.
Scenes from Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner buttressed Baldwin’s insights into Hollywood’s chastening of black sexuality, even for an avowed sex symbol like Sidney Poitier; excerpts from Kramer’s No Way Out inspire Baldwin’s philosophical reflections on the way white and black audiences view a pivotal scene in the film. Baldwin and Peck effectively puncture Kramer’s liberal pieties, prompting us to assess the movie’s kumbaya togetherness anew.
Riffing on Baldwin’s cinematic critiques, Peck explores how movies and popular culture have always marginalized people of color, a conclusion that is not new but is vividly and artistically realized nonetheless. At one point, he offers up a series of still images from paintings, photography and movies, beginning with close-ups on the central white family and panning, left or right, to the compliantly grinning African-American servant in the periphery. Instead of cheering for the six-shooting hero, Baldwin grew up identifying with anonymous Native Americans in countless John Wayne westerns, and after hearing him out, you’ll never at look at those pictures the same way again.
Perhaps most profound are Baldwin’s diagnoses of a nation culturally adrift and driven to distraction, taking solace in the fantasies and debasements offered by television. Given that Baldwin composed this text in the 1970s, he didn’t live to see the rise of Jerry Springer, degrading game shows and vacuous reality TV, but Peck’s inclusion of this imagery updates and extends the writer’s prophetic conclusions, to say nothing of his provocative insertion of photos of slain, unarmed black children — contemporary imagery that’s sadly à propos.
Occasionally, Peck permits well-meaning but inherently naive whites to counter Baldwin’s views on society’s racial double standards and irreconcilable dialectics — between public and private views, privilege and its absence — as a tweedy professor endeavors, on the Cavett show. Baldwin’s elegant responses set him straight, and will set a 21st-century white spectatorship straight, too.
I Am Not Your Negro is, among many other things, a reminder that my race is in complete ignorance of what it’s like to live as a black person. To reappropriate a rejoinder from none other than Steve Bannon, it’s about time we shut up and listened.
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Director: Raoul Peck; Distributor: Magnolia; Opens: Friday at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami and Regal South Beach 18.