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Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Director Raoul Peck’s visual essay based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book on the lives of Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers

06 April, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

An important, radical piece – I Am Not Your Negro

Directed by Raoul Peck
Certificate 12a

This is a cinematic realisation of a book proposal by James Baldwin, a visual essay using a 30-page cache of notes written to Baldwin’s literary agent, outlining a book he was never to write.

Called Remember This House, Baldwin outlined a project that would use the violent deaths of three men – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr – to consider what circumstances created their distinct readings of the politics of race, economics and history in the USA.

This is an exceptionally brave task to attempt for director and writer Raoul Peck – and he aces it. From having Samuel L Jackson narrate, taking the voice of Baldwin, to the footage gleaned that acts as a tableaux putting his words into a historical context that then links to the extraordinary political situation we find ourselves in today, this is cinema at its best. Informative and interesting, watchable and thought-provoking, above all, it brings Baldwin back to life and reminds what a towering figure he was.

Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain appeared in 1953, and the follow-up, The Fire Next Time, cemented his place as an influential figure in the civil rights movement.

As Peck notes in a book released to accompany the film, “…Baldwin had written extensively about cinema and its role in shaping our culture and ideology”. Peck draws directly on films Baldwin had seen, and had meant something to him in one way or another. This gives the viewer a visual starting point to come to a greater understanding of the narrative.

Peck has created a consideration of Baldwin’s ability to think rationally and revolutionarily about the American political system: this film puts it firmly into a contemporary context. Walking us through the visions of the three men he was planning to write about, and melded with his own experiences, Baldwin’s rhetoric seeps off the screen: the powerful oratory of watching him talking at Cambridge University in 1965 is worth the ticket price alone.

Peck has brought Baldwin’s words to life, taken us into the world Baldwin understood and tried to make others do so too – and with chilling force offers a narrative to try and explain America today in terms of both racial and economic oppression.

This is not just a good watch, it is an important, radical piece, and should be on the syllabus of schools across the country as a tool to show how to create and promote an argument in a wholly beautiful and effective way.


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