In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent describing his latest project. His ambition was no less than to tell the story of America through the lives of his three murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Even though the silkily eloquent and intellectually incendiary author of The Fire Next Time didn’t get far on the book before his death in 1987, director Raoul Peck’s essential documentary,
I Am Not Your Negro, attempts to complete it for him.
The film’s narration is culled from Baldwin’s own words, and they’re spoken by Samuel L. Jackson, who trades in his thunderclap for a hushed whisper. We see clips of Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show (when “ideas” were actually discussed on TV) and debating brilliantly at the University of Cambridge. At one point he writes: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.… It is not a pretty story.” It’s plain and stark and hard to argue with.
If there’s a flaw with the film (and it’s a minor one), it’s Peck’s impulse to cram it with clips from lily-white Doris Day movies and John Wayne Westerns that are a bit too on the nose. Then again, there’s nothing subtle about the sad, tragic legacy of civil rights in this country. As Peck cuts from archival scenes of police brutality in the South in the ’60s to recent footage from Ferguson, Mo., it’s impossible not to think: The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s enough to make you weep. A–