It’s been said that timing is everything. Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin doc “I Am Not Your Negro,” opening in theaters in the wake of Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis’ public feud with President Trump, is proof positive of that. Owing as much to recent film such as “Selma” and “Birth of a Nation” as it does to “Hidden Figures” and “13th,” “I Am Not Your Negro” is required viewing.
In 1979, gay author Baldwin had endeavored to tell his story of America through the lives of three murdered friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. He only got as far as writing 30 pages of notes for the unfinished book, to be titled “Remember This House.”
Peck combines phenomenal vintage footage of Baldwin, who died in 1987, with Samuel L. Jackson providing voiceover for letters from Baldwin to his agent and more. If only Baldwin knew how prescient his words, about everything from race to television, were when he spoke (and wrote) them between 40 and 50 years ago.
With the murders of Evers (1963), X (1965) and King (1968) as the backdrop, it’s fitting (and frustrating) that Peck was able to find parallels between the racial violence of the past, distant and recent, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement spurred on by the events in Ferguson, Missouri.
Anyone familiar with Baldwin’s writing is sure to find inspiration from hearing him speak in the film. Among the most unforgettable films clips are Baldwin’s 1968 appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” an interview on the 1963 Dr. Kenneth Clark TV program, “The Negro and The American Promise”(which also featured King and X), and speaking engagements, such as the one at Cambridge University (1965).
Baldwin, who says he was not a member of any particular black group because he was “never in town to stay” and that his function was to write the story as a witness and get out, without realizing it, became “the great black hope of the great white father.” He even earned himself an FBI file in 1966, in which he is described as “dangerous,” leading to his name being included in the “security index.” “I Am Not Your Negro” is not to be missed. A-