dir.Raoul Peck, France/USA 2016.
Raoul Peck’s blistering essay film I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO channels James Baldwin’s words to reframe our look at institutional racism through the literary luminary’s sensibilities. Through correspondence, remembrances and articles, along with archival footage of the man debating on talk shows and college campuses, Baldwin unpacks his experiences with and study of “the story of the American Negro”, or in short, “the story of America” into resounding observations that speak to us on poetic and emotional levels.
Throughout the film, Peck intercuts clips from events or Hollywood movies discussed directly by Baldwin, giving the piece a flow and scope reminiscent of an Adam Curtis work. These clips also often leap forward to the current day, emphasizing just how relevant Baldwin’s commentary remains.
The writer’s approach was often to describe racism in its effects rather than its intents, something that would still help us bring dialogue forward today. It is immaterial to Baldwin whether real estate developers “hate” Negroes; he can only speak to how their actions tend to confine him and people who look like him to the ghetto.
Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin for the writer’s texts, particularly an unfinished manuscript originating from the author’s personal relationships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Peck deliberately cast an actor who doesn’t sound like Baldwin, yet through his own prominence and talent would bring forth the sprit of the man. Baldwin himself speaks with a mellifluous timbre and an almost mid-Atlantic accent in his appearances, which Jackson doesn’t try to effect. Yet the actor reads in an almost unrecognizably measured register, bringing a thoughtful passion to his delivery. We really do feel like we are in the pleasure of the great writer’s company, through Jackson’s warmth and Peck’s assured editing.
So even when Peck executes a jaw-dropping dissolve from a close-up of the school shooter in Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT to one of a heavily armored policeman on the ground in Ferguson (or Baltimore, or Baton Rouge, or, or, or…), it echoes a Baldwin sentiment. No one would look at that juxtaposition and conclude that Caucasians are inherently violent.
Institutional racism thrives because we simply don’t look at each other. Baldwin understood this all too well, and Peck has distilled that tragedy into something we can all share. Now that we are even more distrusting of institutions than ever, independent voices like Baldwin’s (he was unaffiliated with the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, and the NAACP) provide the grounding with which to envision new and revised ones.