Nominated this year for an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” draws from an unfinished book by novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet James Baldwin. Deeply personal, “Remember This House” was meant to be a remembrance of his friends and civil-rights titans Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, using Baldwin’s own words and a smattering of archival footage, the film isn’t a biography of the man but a biography of a lifetime of experiences, experiences that reverberate today.
As timely in 2017 as when the words were written in 1979, it’s a portrait of race relations in America, a place Baldwin calls, “a complex country that insists on being very narrow-minded.” To hammer home this point Peck uses archival footage from Baldwin’s lifetime as well as ripped-from-the-headlines images of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Black Lives Matter and Michael Brown.
With no talking heads Peck relies on news footage, movie clips and archival talk show tape, intercutting them with the fluidity of jazz. Posters and graphics punctuate the narration, subliminally driving home Baldwin’s points. More striking than the visuals is the arresting eloquence of Baldwin’s words. When he makes—and Jackson verbalizes—statements like, “To look around America today is to make prophets and angels weep,” it is impossible to not to be moved by both the beauty of the language and the underlying message.
Baldwin lived at a tumultuous time but as his words remind us, “History is not the past it is the present. We are our history.”