Published Mar 03, 2017Renowned author and social critic James Baldwin left behind a truly impressive body of work, and it's one that keeps on giving. For example, an unfinished 30-page manuscript called Remember This House has formed the basis for Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
Remember This House intended to explore the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., three men who were pivotal leaders in the civil rights movement, all of whom were killed in racially motivated murders before they turned 40. Though the book was never finished (a fact that saw publishing house McGraw-Hill attempt to sue Baldwin's estate after his death in 1987), it forms the basis for a riveting meditation on the black experience in America.
Peck pairs footage of Baldwin with uncharacteristically subdued narration from Samuel L. Jackson, and the resulting film suggests that Remember This House was a complete project. Here, we are reminded of the atrocities that have faced African Americans since their forced arrival on the continent. Wisely, Peck modernizes the words with recent footage of racially motivated police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. It's disheartening (though sadly not shocking) that words written in the era of segregation would fit so well with modern imagery.
There are limitations to Peck's film, specifically in the decision to skip out on original footage. That's a common documentary move — pop culture enthusiasts will recall that Room 237 and Supersonic similarly skipped out on cinematography — but it occasionally grows tiring. A mish-mash of news reports, stock footage and archival films, the film would be more engaging with some stylistic choices and original visuals.
All that said, you'll have a hard time getting bored during I Am Not Your Negro — the film packs on hell of a message. By analyzing the history of African American life through Baldwin's poetic prose, you'll feel the weight of the struggle and a lump in your throat.
At times violent, heart-wrenching and all too real, I Am Not Your Negro is a film that's painfully timely. And while it's somewhat unlikely that it will reach the ignorant and racist people who need it most, it still stands as an incredibly important meditation on the sins of the Western world. After all, in the words of Baldwin himself, "The story of the negro in America is the story of America." (Mongrel Media)