James Baldwin in “I Am Not Your Negro.” | Photo by Dan Budnick

 

THERE IS TRUE ARTISTRY in “I Am Not Your Negro.” Inspired by the writings and profound insights of James Baldwin (1924-1987), Raoul Peck’s seminal film manages to synthesize more than 50 years of America’s woeful racism and dogged inhumanity into 93 minutes. Built with Baldwin’s prescient words and fortified by powerful images, it’s a tour de force.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is nominated for an academy award in the documentary feature category. It is the first Oscar nod for Peck and his co-producers, Rémi Grellety, and Hébert Peck, the director’s brother.

The film envisions the book Baldwin began, but never finished. He left behind a 30-page manuscript for “Remember This House.” The book was intended to be a revolutionary examination of the lives, leadership, and violent deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., who were assassinated in the space of five years (1963-1968).

“These three men were black, but it is not the color of their skin that connected them. They fought on quite different battlefields. And quite differently. But in the end, all three were deemed dangerous. They were unveiling the haze of racial confusion,” Peck writes in his director’s statement for the film. “James Baldwin also saw through the system. And he loved these men. These assassinations broke him down. He was determined to expose the complex links and similarities among these three individuals. He was going to write about them.”

In Baldwin’s absence, Peck took up the quest with the blessing of Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister and executor of his estate. She gave him the rights to the writer’s entire body of work—published and unpublished. Peck used it unsparingly to create “I Am Not Your Negro,” a black history primer and thoughtful examination of race in America. Every word in the film is Baldwin’s, harvested from his books, essays, interviews, speeches, broadcasts, and films. Archival footage of Baldwin is supplemented with voiceovers by Samuel L. Jackson. The message is all Baldwin, but the film is unmistakably Peck.

Every word in the film is Baldwin’s, harvested from his books, essays, interviews, speeches, broadcasts, and films. Archival footage of Baldwin is supplemented with voiceovers by Samuel L. Jackson. The message is all Baldwin, but the film is unmistakably Peck.


“I Am Not Your Negro” opened theatrically Feb. 3. | Video by Magnolia Pictures

 

AN AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR of many films, Peck is most recognized for “Lumumba” (2000), a documentary about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo. “Sometimes in April” tackled the Rwandan genocide. Following his work on “I Am Not Your Negro,” he recently finished shooting a feature called “The Young Karl Marx.” Informed by his experience working on these complex political portraits, Peck confidently takes creative risks with Baldwin’s material and pushes experimentation with words, music, and images.

Stills by more than two dozen photographers are laced throughout the narrative. Images by Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Danny Lyon, and Flip Schulke are immediately recognizable.

Production notes describe the film as primarily visual and musical, and detail its approach to images:

    “‘I Am Not Your Negro’ uses archival images from private and public photos; film clips, Hollywood classics, documentaries, film and TV interviews, popular TV shows, TV debates, public debates and contemporary images. It is a kaleidoscope, featuring a frantic and poetic assemblage (a medley), all in Baldwin’s very own, peculiar style.

    The images punctuate the words and the music and vice versa. By revisiting the traditional ‘Black’ iconography, with its clichés, the unspoken, the fundamental errors of interpretation and even, at times, the paternalistic prudery, I Am Not Your Negro redefines their meaning and impact.

    Peck changed not only the framing of his images, but their traditional use and their ‘editing’ as well. He changed the backgrounds, detached portions, enlarged a smile, scratched out a tear. The goal was to deconstruct original intentions and thus expose a new meaning to accepted iconography, unveil buried secrets or unknown truths of the time. Familiar B&W images were colored, actual current images were transferred to B&W.”

 


GORDON PARKS, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

About 20 minutes into the film, there is footage of James Baldwin debating William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. The topic: “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” Indeed it has, Baldwin believes. But it is a loaded question, he said. The answer depends on one’s point of view, one’s sense and system of reality, where one finds himself in the world.

In the excerpt that appears in the film, Baldwin said: “It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. …It comes as a great shock to discover the country that is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

“It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”

Reflecting Baldwin’s observations, segregation-era images by Parks appear in the film following the debate footage. In 1956, Parks traveled to Shady Grove, Ala., where he spent time photographing an ordinary African American family enduring the indignities of the Jim Crow South. America had grown accustomed to black-and-white images of the race divide when the legendary photographer published his “Segregation” series, a color portfolio in Life magazine.

The film’s images are as pointed, political, and poetic as Baldwin’s words. Spoken and written in decades past, it is both discouraging and empowering to realize how relevant Baldwin’s insights are to our contemporary context.

“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive,” Baldwin says in the film. “The question you’ve got to ask yourself, the white population of this country has got to ask itself, is ‘Why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place?’ ‘Cause I am not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I am a nigger, means you need it and you’ve got to find out why. And the future depends on that.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: James Baldwin in “I Am Not Your Negro.” | Courtesy Magnolia Pictures, © Dan Budnick, All rights reserved

 

BOOKSHELF
For more on Raoul Peck’s film, a companion volume to “I Am Not Your Negro,” has been published. To further explore James Baldwin’s literature check out the many titles he published during his lifetime. The catalog “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” coincided with the exhibition of the photographer’s 1956 images of Jim Crow Alabama.

 


GORDON PARKS, “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

 


GORDON PARKS, “Willie Causey, Jr., with Gun During Violence in Alabama, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Lost in the Archives
Key projects from James Baldwin and Gordon Parks almost went undiscovered. Raoul Peck was given access for a decade to Baldwin’s entire body of work. According to the production notes for “I Am Not Your Negro,” it wasn’t until after several unsuccessful attempts to get a Baldwin project into development that Peck received the 30-page manuscript for “Remember This House.” Baldwin’s sister “gave him a pile of neatly (and partly crossed out) typewritten pages and a letter. ‘You’ll know what to do with this,’ she said.” Those pages formed the basis of “I Am Not Your Negro.”

According to the catalog description, Parks’s full portfolio of Segregation images almost didn’t see the light of day: “While 26 photographs were eventually published in Life and some were exhibited in his lifetime, the bulk of Parks’ assignment was thought to be lost. In 2011, five years after Parks’ death, The Gordon Parks Foundation discovered more than 70 color transparencies at the bottom of an old storage bin marked ‘Segregation Series’ that are now published for the first time in ‘Segregation Story.’

 


GORDON PARKS, “Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

 


Untitled, Alabama, 1956 | Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation