Raoul Peck (director)
Altitude Films (studio)
07 April 2017 (released)
04 April 2017
The James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro comes to UK cinemas this Friday having already picked up an Academy Award nomination earlier this year, amongst a barrel-load of other awards and nominations, accumulated as it has been enthusiastically lauded at countless film festivals over the last few months.
First of all, I would say that the film is worth the hype. Crafted by Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, and narrated by Samuel L Jackson, the film is artfully structured by Peck around Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The work focused on Baldwin’s personal recollections of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; and Peck combines archive footage of Baldwin, and the era described, with passages of the book being read by Jackson, to produce a startling effect.
Baldwin’s perspectives on race and his articulation of how the African American community has historically and systematically been denied a legitimate stake in wider US society, are still striking in their impact. And in grimly predictable fashion, it is hard to avoid the sense that his arguments retain much of their relevance today, something emphasised by Peck with his use of recent footage to illustrate Baldwin's postulations.
The power of the film comes from Baldwin’s words, and Peck doesn’t clutter his work with needless artifice in a way that might have diminished or distracted from their potency. The contemporary footage chosen only augments the momentum provided by Jackson’s driving delivery, and the imagery is understandably poignant in several moments. Jackson, a man personally involved in the civil rights movement, was I believe a good choice to narrate. Choosing an actor who spoke in a style closer to Baldwin’s distinct enunciation, might have come across as affected. Instead Jackson, with his natural gravitas, provides the fitting counterbalance to Baldwin’s vital rhetoric.