Essayist, poet, playwright, novelist, social critic: no single term defines the singular mind of James Baldwin, a man whose contemplations on race and morality in America remain, all these years later, palpably poignant. I Am Not Your Negro lists Raoul Peck as director but only Baldwin as a writer, crediting him for creating a documentary cobbled together decades after his death. He’d only know of it if he somehow operates as a ghost. If he is a ghost, I hope he’s haunting the shit out of the White House right now, just as his words still haunt those who return to them.
I Am Not Your Negro is a messy, rambling documentary that employs Samuel L. Jackson to voice Baldwin’s narration. Jackson is at his least distracting, caging his expected bombastic flights of enunciation into the thinly restrained rage that inhibited Baldwin’s approach. Working from a project the late author had initiated, an unfinished novel titled Remember This House, it’s difficult to tell how much of the film’s flaws are owed to Peck filling in gaps left by a genius.
The original concept of that never-completed novel, as the documentary somewhat confusingly elaborates, involved Baldwin putting the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in context with one another and with the imposingly large, and always oppressive, issues of race in America. The added burden of having to contextualize Baldwin himself had to have thrown off the delicate equilibrium in an already nigh-impossible endeavor to turn an unfinished book into captivating documentary.
This isn’t to say I Am Not Your Negro isn’t frequently captivating. Simply listening to the poetic prose of Baldwin placed in modern context is as inspiring and invigorating as it is chilling. And Peck adds some stellar contemplation of his own, like his choice to show the more recent Ferguson protests in the same black-and-white photographic style used to depict watershed moments of the Civil Rights Era. As the film bobs and weaves through impossibly important historic moments loaded with dense modern meaning, it is as motivating as it is demoralizing; so many of the same issues still smolder hot, like Klan crosses only half-heartedly doused.
The problem is, although the individual parts are all profound, the whole is meandering and unstructured. Chapter headings endowed with Baldwin’s signature brilliance don’t really provide a spine by which to follow the content logically from head to toe. The ending segment from which Peck drew his own title, forgoing the one Baldwin had chosen for the (allegedly) same content, should have been the thesis statement shown at the front of the movie.
It feels petty to criticize I Am Not Your Negro. But it also feels disingenuous not to mention the frustration of watching something so potentially transformative and meaningful somewhat miss the mark. If you watched the movie in segments, seeing it as a collection of essays and not a single endeavor, the result would likely be better than ingesting it all at once. I nothing else, I Am Not Your Negro makes you wish Baldwin were still with us, holding accountable feet to the fire while firing up the downtrodden.
Grade = B