The erudite, sapient and often incendiary author, James Baldwin, who lived most of his adult life in Paris, is the subject of "I Am Not Your Negro", from filmmaker Raoul Peck. In 1979, Baldwin wrote to his literary agent detailing his newest project, "Remember This House". But, in 1987, when Baldwin died, he had completed only 30 pages.
Peck has taken that unfinished manuscript and crafted this documentary as his vision of the book Baldwin did not finish. Baldwin had wished to expose and illuminate the important works and subsequent assassinations of three of his closest friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Evers was murdered first on June 12, 1963 in the carport of his home. Malcom X was the second to be assassinated on February 21,
1965, and Dr. King was gunned down at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Within five years, these three black men, all with a different agenda, but possessing some similarities in their efforts to empower African Americans in this country, were brutally killed.
Using Baldwin's own words and Samuel L. Jackson to speak them, Peck has beautifully edited together still photos and television clips of Baldwin to illustrate his efforts. We are duly reminded of events in this country we would rather forget.
Some of the most searing footage follows Dorothy Counts, a young woman as she makes her way through a relentless and angry mob in September 1957, the first black student to attend Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, a white, non-segregated school.
Baldwin's comments, voiced by Jackson, decry the fact that some of them --- all of them --- should have been there with her. He's referring to the civil rights leaders at the time, and himself, as he had just returned to America that summer.
"I Am Not Your Negro" is a powerful, masterful indictment of racism in this country, as seen through the eyes of the frustrated writer Baldwin and the unforgiving lens of documentarian Peck. This is truly one of those films which demands to be seen by every American citizen, considering our present state of turmoil. Would it make a difference? Perhaps not for some, but for others it just may be the cruel reminder necessary to snap us out of our complacency.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
"I Am Not Your Negro" is an almost surreal documentary about race relations in our country. Haitian-born director Raoul Peck has assembled interviews, archival television shows and actual film footage, along with the extensive insights of author James Baldwin, to depict the black America of decades ago contrasted with today's racial turmoil. The surreal part? Baldwin, well known for his 1963 book "The Fire Next Time", died almost 30 years ago.
Peck's film is partly based on the abbreviated writings of Baldwin's final book entitled "Remember This House", of which he only finished 30 pages before his death. But Peck embraces the writer's entire body of work over his lifetime, including his public speeches. Therefore, "I Am Not Your Negro" is essentially the product of Baldwin's last book as if it had, in fact, been completed.
Baldwin had intended "Remember This House" to be an homage to three of his closest friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all of whom were central figures in the civil unrest of the 1960's. Their common link? All three were assassinated within a five year period, 1963-1968.
"I Am Not Your Negro" opens with Baldwin being interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show. For younger moviegoers, Cavett was an extremely popular talk show host, primarily in the '60's and 70's, with a mid-day program that housewives glommed onto because of his easy going, down home style. He later joined the late-night talk wars.(Note: Cavett is alive and well at age 80, living in New York).
Peck's film is rife with stunning images of the rampant racism that characterized parts of the U.S. at the time --- white men proudly and loudly holding derogatory signs, or a young black woman braving attendance at an all-white school in the South. And the sight of black men dangling from the end of a rope is always shocking.
Baldwin's seeming pessimism about the future of his race in this country is contrasted with Robert Kennedy's prediction of a black American president. And it is almost astounding how Baldwin's ideologies are relevant today.
Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, "I Am Not Your Negro" is one of five Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary in 2016.
Opinion: See It Now!