Hyper-aware of the extent to which James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript Remember This House remains relevant, veteran director Raoul Peck creates a compelling documentary with his latest film, I Am Not Your Negro. The Oscar-nominated film opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee.
A personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three Civil Rights-era activists — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — Baldwin's book features his complex observations about racism. Written while Baldwin lived overseas, Remember This House includes his reaction to seeing young black Dorothy Counts confronting a large, aggressive, white mob by herself on her way to attend her first day of school. Baldwin also talks about Sidney Poitier's role in Hollywood movies and in the entertainment business. Peck does a terrific job of using vintage footage that matches Baldwin's prose.
In one clip from The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin compassionately speaks about how Christianity has only worked to further segregate blacks and whites despite its philosophy of treating others equally. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the movie uses Baldwin's elegant prose as its sole narrative and includes archival photos and videos from both then and now. No talking heads appear in the movie, and they're not missed.
Ultimately, the film reflects Peck's artistry. According to the press notes, he "changed not only the framing of his images, but their traditional use and their 'editing' as well," as he altered backgrounds and added visuals in the attempt to "deconstruct" the original clips that he includes.
The film includes references to contemporary events as well and even features a sound byte from Donald Trump, a presidential candidate at the time of the film's making. With images from Ferguson and the Obama inauguration, I Am Not Your Negro makes connections between the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and more recent race-related issues, suggesting the degree to which Baldwin understood the complexity of racism and the struggle for equality. — Jeff Niesel