A recurring image in I Am Not Your Negro, a wounded but finally hopeful documentary, is of forward movement — street lights or palm trees passing by from the POV of a car’s passenger, and so on. It expresses, I think, the state of mind of its wounded but finally hopeful subject, the writer James Baldwin. In 1980, Baldwin signed a contract to write a book, Remember This House, about his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all martyrs to the civil-rights cause. In 1987, Baldwin died, having completed just thirty pages. I Am Not Your Negro uses that text, and others from Baldwin’s public and private writing, to construct the story of a man’s soul under lifelong pressure from living in a racist society.
Despite its forward motion, the movie flits back and forth in time, making the point that Baldwin’s concerns in the ‘50s and ‘60s are, if anything, more relevant today. Things have changed in some ways, not in others. Baldwin refused black responsibility for “the race problem” — he thought that the “problem” was created by white people and that they needed to own it. To the extent that whites have failed to assume responsibility for the systemic racism that benefits them, much of the tension prevalent in Baldwin’s prime is still very much with us.
In an intimate voice approaching a whisper, Jackson reads Baldwin’s diamond-sharp words. A multiple outcast, Baldwin was gay as well as black. Conceivably, he could find himself among fellow black men who would condemn his sexuality, and find himself among fellow gay men who hated his race. It’s no wonder, then, that Baldwin often wore what I would call a sad yet sardonic expression. His consciousness was unavoidably ironic and also informed, or warped, by the highly combustible tropes of the Hollywood movies of his youth. The movie takes the opportunity to interrogate Hollywood’s culpability in American racism, leading up to what I considered the single discordant element: cutting directly from footage of Doris Day emoting to a stark photo of a lynching victim. It’s mean and uncalled-for; it grates aesthetically and morally. Yes, Baldwin did call Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” but I mean, c’mon.
Otherwise, the film’s critique of American culture and society, following Baldwin’s lead, is more than fair (including Baldwin’s revulsion at such cinematic Uncle Toms as Stepin Fetchit — although that performer has since been re-evaluated). The Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches the timelines and footage together smoothly — the result is an engaging riff on Baldwin’s themes. It’s the opposite of dry and academic; the style is jazzy and allusive, with a strong mix of movie clips. Baldwin’s point about Hollywood is that one of the ways you learn a society’s nature is by looking at the stories they tell themselves about themselves.
So what story does I Am Not Your Negro tell? It’s not strictly a biographical piece; Peck assumes you know who Baldwin was and why he managed to rub elbows with so many African-Americans of note, serving as a “witness” more than taking direct action. It’s not a balm in frightening times; it endorses Baldwin’s thesis that the American problem must be faced. It brings some lesser-known Baldwinisms to a larger audience, and may lead people to his books and essays. (Maybe begin with The Fire Next Time, a true classic that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among others.) It begins with the concept Baldwin had of a book about Evers, King and Malcolm, and ends up irising outward to take in the world that formed them, held them aloft for a while, and then took them.