I Am Not Your Negro

"I Am Not Your Negro" is a documentary that brings the words of James Baldwin to life.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

The year is 1967, but the question could be just as easily asked in 2017. Talk show host Dick Cavett is interviewing author and essayist James Baldwin (“Giovanni’s Room”), and ticks off a list of things African-Americans should feel good about — civil rights legislation, African-Americans being elected to political office.

“Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic?” Cavett asks. Replace the outdated term “Negroes” with “black people” and the question could have been asked by white people in 2017. “Things are better. We just had a black president. Why is #BlackLivesMatters in the streets?”

Baldwin’s answer, like so many of his words in Raoul Peck’s shattering documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” reach across the decades and grab us by the shoulders. The real question, he says, is not how black people feel about how they are treated, but how a nation can survive when it treats one-ninth of its population as lesser than the rest. “The real question is what’s going to happen to this country.”

And then, to drive the point home, Peck abruptly cuts from that 1967 interview to footage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, of heavily armed police using tear gas and batons on black protesters. The choice of music on the soundtrack reflects both Baldwin’s perspective and his wit: Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right I Got the Blues.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” is essential, uncomfortable, perspective-altering viewing. The term “inspire” is thrown around too much in Hollywood (“Inspired by a true story” usually means “given permission to make stuff up”), but Peck was clearly inspired by Baldwin’s words to create an angry and lyrical film that gives those words form, voice and color. That those words are so relevant today is a revelation and a tragedy.

Peck takes as his source material some 30 pages of notes that Baldwin wrote to his editor, outlining a proposed book project that would weave together the lives (and murders) of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The narration is taken entirely from those notes, read by Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively dials down his signature speaking style to better match Baldwin’s thoughtful words.

In weaving together the stories of the three men, Baldwin speaks eloquently of growing up black in America, of the shock of being a young boy and discovering that, while playing cowboys and Indians, the country saw him as the Indian, the other to be feared. His horror and rage is visceral, even as he keeps his composure and patiently explains to white interviewers the truths they refuse to see.

Peck expertly uses clips from old movies and television shows, from white actors in blackface to movies like “The Defiant Ones” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Because it’s in pop culture that America sees itself as it would like to be seen. By showing us these same movies and television shows from a black perspective, Baldwin illustrates the divide between white and black America.

Whites don’t necessarily hate black people, Baldwin says. They just don’t know them, living in a segregated society that allows them to wallow in apathy and ignorance. Again and again, Baldwin rejects the notion that racism is poisonous for the oppressed alone, or that the “race card” is something that can be played or not. A country cannot survive, he insists, in which “brother has murdered brother knowing he was brother.”

Like Ava DuVernay's documentary "The 13TH," "I Am Not Your Negro" shows that people can't understand what's happening today without knowing what came before. “The story of the Negro is the story of America,” Baldwin writes. “It is not a pretty story.”

If there is any hope in “I Am Not Your Negro,” it is from learning that story, and knowing we are not finished writing it.