I Am Not Your Negro Directed by Raoul Peck. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Regal Green Valley Ranch and Century Suncoast.
One of two 2016 Oscar-nominated documentaries that directly take on race relations in America, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is less polemic and more artful than Ava DuVernay’s more high-profile 13th, but it’s no less powerful or impassioned. Peck takes as his primary source material an unfinished 1979 manuscript by black writer James Baldwin, who was tasked with writing a remembrance of three slain civil rights leaders (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), all of whom he knew personally. Baldwin never made it beyond a 30-page outline, but Peck takes those notes, along with some of Baldwin’s other essays and articles, and weaves them into a meditation on race in America, both in Baldwin’s time and in the present.
Narrated in somber tones by Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin’s words remain distressingly resonant as he describes resentment, anger and insensitivity blacks endure on a regular basis, and also speaks affectingly about the inspiration and dedication of his three friends. Peck illustrates Baldwin’s words with video clips from the civil rights era through the present day, sometimes coming up with incisive juxtapositions between Baldwin’s prose and events from decades later. Some of the visual aids can be a little clumsy, and the footage itself varies in quality, but even without the images, I Am Not Your Negro offers stirring, eloquent words from Baldwin.
Jackson’s subdued reading emphasizes the seriousness of Baldwin’s observations, and it’s balanced out by periodic footage of Baldwin himself, giving speeches or being interviewed, in which he demonstrates a livelier, wry tone, with undertones of irony and even self-deprecation. There are almost no biographical details about Baldwin himself in the movie, and those occasional snippets hint at how fascinating and insightful an entire documentary about the writer’s life could be. Maybe Peck can tackle that one next.