PRINT February 2017


Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016, HD video, color and black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes. James “Spider” Martin’s featured archival photograph of state troopers and civil rights activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL, March 7, 1965.

IN THE WEEKS following the 2016 US election debacle, three documentaries that condemn institutionalized racism as the most egregious failure of American democracy found themselves prime contenders for best nonfiction film of the year. In form, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th have little in common. A comparison between them, however, might provoke useful arguments, old and new, about the effectiveness of films meant to galvanize political action.

Impressive as DuVernay’s scathing indictment of the prison-industrial complex and Edelman’s meticulously researched, binge-worthy eight-hour analysis of racism and celebrity are, a combination of passionate subjectivity and intellectual clarity distinguishes Peck’s film, just as it does the writing of James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro isn’t a biopic. Rather, Peck uses Baldwin as a lens through which to examine nearly a century of racism in America, from the author’s earliest childhood memories in the 1930s to his prophetic analysis of where we are today.

When Baldwin died in 1987, he left thirty pages of an ambitious book titled Remember This House, which he had begun at the end of the ’70s. It was to have focused on the lives and deaths of three great civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, all three the writer’s friends, and all assassinated in the 1960s, before any of them had reached the age of forty. Excerpted, and read in voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson, this first-person text—Baldwin’s memoir of bearing witness to the indomitable courage of Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar—is the spine of Peck’s film. Jackson’s performance is crucial: He speaks in Baldwin’s writing voice—the voice we hear in our heads when we read Baldwin’s nonfiction, the rigor of his analyses colored by grief and anger.

As a public speaker, Baldwin was just as brilliant and outspoken, but self-consciousness made his voice sound strangled. It could not have been easy for a gay black man who grew up poor to present himself as a militant face of the civil rights movement. Peck weaves these two Baldwin voices together, using chunks of the author’s TV appearances and speeches. The words in the film are all Baldwin’s, but Peck is able to do something that Baldwin as a writer could not. The landscape of racism—the interior of black consciousness—which Baldwin evokes with words, is, in the film, a dense, associative, immersive architecture of images and language. The editing by Alexandra Strauss and the director can be as visceral as a punch in the stomach and as elusive as a dream. Central to Baldwin’s analysis of racism is that white people in America can willfully turn their eyes away from this landscape. But in refusing to acknowledge the experience of black Americans, they become “moral monsters,” on a continuum with the enraged white-racist mobs in the images of Birmingham and Little Rock in the 1950s and ’60s and those seen jeering at Black Lives Matter protesters today. Baldwin had little hope for the future of a country that believed a ninth of its population was not fully human. Peck underscores Baldwin’s pessimism with intricate montages of then and now, at times colorizing familiar black-and-white stills and newsreels and draining recent images of their color. Save for this small shift in the imagery, nothing seems changed, except that, terrifyingly, the police today brandish assault rifles and drive military tanks into crowds of demonstrators. In a brief clip of Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue during the 2009 inauguration, the couple look as amazed to be there as we are to see their smiles eight years later, given the racist backlash that followed.

Peck, who was born in Haiti (where he served briefly as minister of culture), has moved freely between documentary and fiction films. The great achievement of I Am Not Your Negro is that it merges the factual rigor of documentary with the subjectivity, intimacy, and poetic expressivity of great fiction filmmaking. Peck has written that he always keeps a Baldwin book close at hand and that, in the New York apartment where he grew up, portraits of MLK and President John F. Kennedy graced the kitchen. Only later would he understand the difference in power between the two men.

The distinction between moral authority and political might was one Baldwin articulated precisely. Among the many indelible sequences in I Am Not Your Negro is one in which Baldwin describes going with the playwright Lorraine Hansberry to a meeting in 1963 with Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general and JFK’s closest adviser, to request that the president accompany a black girl who was about to enroll in a supposedly desegregated school, so that when the crowd spat on her, people would understand that they were spitting on America. Baldwin felt that RFK gave them the brush-off. He remembered Hansberry’s icy smile as she told Kennedy she “worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” The sequence is extremely simple: just Baldwin’s recollection of the meeting in voice-over, a few photos of Hansberry and RFK, and, finally, the image that Hansberry described, which calls from our own memory banks dozens of recent, similarly abhorrent images. I Am Not Your Negro is both a grief-stricken evocation of history and a call to action—a call that can no longer be ignored.

I Am Not Your Negro opens nationally Feb. 3.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.