Review: 'I Am Not Your Negro' Brings James Baldwin's Words To Life

James Baldwin passed away 30 years ago, which makes it a bit odd at first to see him getting a writing credit on powerful documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. But it's a legit credit to be sure; Raoul Peck's film is entirely comprised from Baldwin's words, taken from notes the acclaimed essayist, playwright, and poet wrote as a proposal for his unfinished novel, "Remember this House". What it tells us is that Baldwin's scribblings have more cultural impact than a dozen books by other authors, with Peck's film a stirring note-perfect representation of his dynamic voice that is just as prevalent and relevant today.

Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in probably the most restrained performance he's ever given (Seriously, you forget it's him), the film encapsulates Baldwin's thoughts on the civil rights movement of his era, but it might as well be a contemporary piece for all of the parallels it draws. Fortunately, Peck does not tell Baldwin's story through a series of dull interviews with civil rights experts, preferring to weave an intricate autobiography melding the writer's words with footage both archival and modern. "Remember this House" was intended to be a story of Baldwin's association with the three pillars of the civil rights movement: assassinated leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. I Am Not Your Negro follows that basic path to tell a story of Baldwin's transformation, but also reveals the ever-changing face of the black struggle throughout American history.

Baldwin's poetic and, it turns out, prophetic prose have such breadth of ideas that Peck finds it tough to focus. It shifts gears rapidly without providing a full flavor of Baldwin's meaning, and even dabbles into his sexual confusion without putting it in proper context. But more often than not Peck uses Baldwin's words as a vessel, transporting us into the fire of the civil rights movement, then flashing us forward to Ferguson, to protests over the death of Trayvon Martin, and the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. It's tough to hear Baldwin's words today and realize how many of the same battles are still being fought, but the effect isn't depressing but is instead galvanizing. I Am Not Your Negro is one of a historic number of Oscar-nominated documentaries from black filmmakers, joined most notably by Ava Duvernay's 13th and OJ: Made in America. Together, these three movies each tell a unique yet complementary side of the black struggle from slavery to now. I Am Not Your Negro serves as a reminder that whatever progress is made, the fight endures and will remain strong as long as voices like Baldwin's remain.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5