Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is overwhelmingly, self-consciously timely, even though its script is entirely drawn from the writings of author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, interspersed with interviews of Baldwin and archival footage from the 1960s. The film examines the role of race in America through the lives of three murdered civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It also contains contemporary footage from Ferguson, Oakland, and numerous sites of the modern civil rights struggle, along with references to Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and many other black children and youths killed in recent years by police and vigilantes.
When the film premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, this resonance with Black Lives Matter must have made Baldwin's word come alive and feel incredibly contemporary for the audience. But the world has changed so much since then, and watching the film now, it feels like it was made in and specifically for February, 2017. The new President of the United States is a billionaire who began his career being accused by the Justice Department of racial discrimination. He has blamed Black Lives Matter for killings of police officers. The Executive and Legislative branches are stacked with opponents of the Voting Rights Act and proponents of racial gerrymandering and voting restrictions. The President has also waged particular war against Muslims and Latinos, promising bans, walls, and deportation forces.
Nearly every word Baldwin utters, in his writings (read by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his interviews, seems readymade for today’s world. I Am Not Your Negro resurrects Baldwin so he can analyze our times, but sadly his words need no updating. This is largely due to the timelessness of Baldwin’s observations and wisdom, and the continuity of racial hate and oppression, but much credit is due to Peck’s masterful editing and vision. Though the film is credited as being written by Baldwin, Peck weaved together the script from various sources of writing, including letters to Baldwin’s literary agent, notes for an unfinished book, and film criticism. Peck’s choices of text and interviews speak clearly to modern American media, the anxieties of white Americans, and the eternal struggles for justice and equality. The story, as told by Baldwin and conducted by Peck, is enrapturing and the ninety-five-minute film flies by.
One of Baldwin’s key arguments is that white Americans created the concept of the “Negro” to act as a foil to themselves, to mask their own fear and the failure American society to provide everything it has promised. The racial hatred of white Americans, Baldwin argues, is a product of insecurity and terror in their private lives. Baldwin and Peck hint at the roots of this insecurity, but I Am Not Your Negro is a diagnosis, not a treatment program. Baldwin is unambiguous in his belief that this work is the responsibility of white Americans.
The relevance of the film to today can be disheartening. One wants to believe that the grainy black-and-white footage is from a long-lost society whose ills and evils have been reconciled. But the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s never ended. The film even gestures towards some areas of regression: the baton- and shotgun-wielding police of yesterday have transformed into militarized security forces battling protesters in armored vehicles. The 21st century struggle for and against civil rights is dancing dangerously close to guerrilla warfare. Archival footage of white protesters against school integration feel at home in 2017—signs with swastikas and proud proclamations of racial hatred could be easily borrowed by modern political rallies, Internet commenters, and government officials.
But despair can be crippling and Peck and Baldwin both avoid this. As sad and frustrating as I Am Not Your Negro is, it is also inspiring, energizing, and even hopeful. Evers, King, and Malcolm X did not die in vain. Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, the children who forced integration, and countless activists unequivocally made their mark. These famous and nameless figures changed the world, and the film is a call to arms. Baldwin’s parting words are that he is an optimist because he is alive, he has survived. If that wisdom is sound, it is as sound in 2017 as it was in 1963. “To be a pessimist,” he continues, “means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter.”