Feministing Films: “I Am Not Your Negro”

Both the work and persona of James Baldwin, the great African American writer and thinker, are familiar to those who concern themselves with questions of relation—of blackness to whiteness—and racism in America. But the imaginary built around and within Baldwin’s work—the images that compelled him, the repetitions, indications, and emotions that consumed him—are, for me, not most present in his earlier, perhaps better known works, but in his later essays, like “The Devil Finds Work” (1976) (a book that takes on the racial politics of American movies) and “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (1981) (on the serial murders of black boys in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981). These were essays steeped not only in histories, theories, and fact, but also in the nearly ineffable: sounds, images, ghosts. The strength of Raoul Peck’s new documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” lies in its ability to engage us in Baldwin’s process as both thinker and activist. It does not offer a comprehensive view of either his persona or œuvre, but ushers us into the radical, prescient theater of his mind.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a video essay comprised entirely of Baldwin’s words, taken primarily from Baldwin’s very last work, “Remember This House,” an unfinished book that focused on the lives, deaths, and legacies of civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin’s estate entrusted Peck with the manuscript, which serves as the documentary’s script along with excerpts from “The Devil Finds Work.” Samuel L. Jackson provides a rumbling and powerful voiceover, but we are consistently reminded of the inimitable tenor, tone, and authority of Baldwin’s own voice, which rings out during interspersed clips of his late night TV appearances. He speaks truth to power, and his Cheshire grin serves as a prelude to his corrections of white ignorance. He almost makes exhausting, personal, pedagogical work seem like fun.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is not a documentary about Baldwin, and those expecting a film that explains the author or catalogues his influence will be disappointed. What’s of interest are the insights in “Remember This House,” which address head on how racism in America manifests, and how it lives in us whether or not we have invited it inside. Malcolm X, Evers, and King are not merely figureheads of a movement, but agitators of the troubled world they seek to change. And they are killed for it. The film hinges on an examination of a world that would have these men killed. There are no culminating conclusions, no sweeping overtures as the film comes to a close since the work itself was never completed, which feels quite correct; it is a comfort to feel as if the answers have already been provided by previous generations; in fact, we have to use our own imaginations, our own understandings of the world to make anything of the film.

That said, “I Am Not Your Negro” is deferential to Baldwin, and Peck — who is Haitian — has admitted as much in interviews. His direction serves the words; the images are secondary to the text. It is an odd methodology for a film, and typically one I am against — that’s the form that much of television takes, and why even some of the best TV series would make terrible cinema — but there’s something arresting about the shorthand and crispness to the film. It does not shy away from drawing direct parallels between Baldwin’s analysis and prophecies to the present day (the events in Ferguson for instance) and does not buoy itself with purely eventful images. (Several scenes simply depict a stretch of a city street or an empty but lit-up city center.)

This is to say, “I Am Not Your Negro” is a cinematic love letter — it is Baldwin’s essay, not Peck’s — and yet Peck is present in his reverence for and attention to Baldwin. Baldwin is not only a great or impressive thinker in this film; his words, for the director, have an urgent and emotional center — Peck’s understanding and sense of his blackness seem to have been strengthened by Baldwin’s writing. That Peck became a filmmaker, and not a writer, seems to speak to some of the reasons I love Baldwin. At his best, his words are images and sounds themselves. They speak as much to presence as they do to the past (the troublesome spot for Baldwin was always the future). To see and hear them on screen is to feel a bit closer to him as the urgency of his essays is distilled in the immediacy of moving image. And for those unfamiliar with Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro” might serve not as an introduction, but as a nudge — go out and discover him for yourself.

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Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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