Alongside Ava DuVernay’s 13th,
“Written by James Baldwin” appears on the screen in the opening credits, and though a documentary this is definitely a film that comes equipped with a screenplay that dictates the tone and pace, for the narration – which comes courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson – is using the aforementioned author and civil rights activist’s very own words to tell this story, and it’s a story that comes devoid of any sense of closure.
Baldwin was close to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers – three people who all stood for the same thing, just with contrasting approaches. Through Baldwin’s writing we cast our eye over a tumultuous time in modern American history, and help to try and comprehend what it must have been like to feel deprived of that sense of identity, when born and raised somewhere where you aren’t treated on equal terms as your white neighbours.
From a cinematic, technical standpoint, I Am Not Your Negro is an accomplished endeavour, and Peck must be commended accordingly – but this is not why it’s a special piece of cinema – that derives from Baldwin. He had such a way with words, to be so concise and succinct, and eloquent in his delivery – somehow able to articulate such complex thoughts, and be so damning with it. The way he speaks about the way black people have been treated in America – from the days of slavery right up until the Civil Rights Movement, is poetic and so brutally honest. Such as when he talks about being a young boy and, like the rest of the American public, became enamoured by westerns and cowboys in particular. But as he puts it – “It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Thanks to having this tale told through Baldwin it allows for a very interesting balance between King’s non-violent approach and Malcolm X’s more assertive, combative style – as he represents a middle ground, thus allowing for the film to adopt his perspective, and understand both sides. Though it’s through the author where this film comes to life, Peck has done a fine job, particularly in how he uses modern footage to illustrate points Baldwin had made in the 1960s, just showing how little has changed, in a way that is deeply upsetting. He’ll speak about clashes between the police and the public and the far-right, ingrained, institutional racism and use images from the Ferguson riots, enforcing this sense of profound relevance.
This is not an easy watch, some of the images are difficult to witness, but it’s important that we see them, for this is a dark chapter in American history we can’t avoid, we need to confront it head on, and this documentary is unflinching in that regard. This is a picture you’d almost hope certain individuals in America, and the rest of the world for that matter, are made to watch this film in the same, tortuous way that Alex in A Clockwork Orange was subjected to cinema; eyes forced open, with nowhere to hide.