In 1979, essayist, author and playwright James Baldwin pitched an idea to his editor for a book on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who were all personal friends. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he had completed only 30 pages of the book. In “I Am Not Your Negro,” filmmaker Raoul Peck takes these pages and weaves a compelling documentary that connects Baldwin’s ideas on race to both black history and contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter.
Samuel L. Jackson speaks Baldwin’s original words, which accompany a collection of archival material that includes Civil Rights era footage and photographs, television interviews with Baldwin and contemporary images of racial unrest. Using Jackson to speak Baldwin’s words is an impactful creative choice that allows Baldwin, who is most well-known for his insightful essays on the black experience in America, to become richly present in the film.
Baldwin wrote that “we carry our history with us” and “if we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.” It’s a central theme of the documentary and its use of archival material that connects America’s dark racial history with present day issues of racial inequality are carefully and effectively chosen, as are the clips of Baldwin himself. In one, he is a guest on Dick Cavett’s talk show. His response to a white professor who claims that he is placing too much emphasis on color as a divisive force is a strong indictment of narrow thinking and one of the film’s most powerful scenes.
With a strong connection to movies, the images Baldwin saw on screen as a child informed some of his views on race. “Heroes, as far as I could see were white,” he wrote, “and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection.” Representations of race in popular culture, including film clips and advertisements, are used throughout the documentary as a way to contrast what is manufactured and what is real. In one particularly arresting sequence, a clip of Doris Day in the 1961 romantic comedy “Lover Come Back” is cut with archival photographs of men who were lynched.
Baldwin’s challenge to white America was to understand the black experience on at least one level, as a fight that by its nature had casualties: “In America I was free only in battle, never free to rest and he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.” The strength of “I Am Not Your Negro” is that it is unafraid to acutely depict this weary battle in both the past and the present and to shine a light on white America’s role in it. As Baldwin wrote: “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” premieres on Independent Lens on Jan. 15 at 10 p.m. EDT on PBS.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.