Movie Review - I Am Not Your Negro
In 1979, eight years before his death, James Baldwin started work on a book. He only got through 30 pages. It was basically a proposal that Baldwin sent to his agent. Those 30 pages form the basis of the narration in this documentary. The narration is a memoir that reveals his thoughts and feelings about important, historical moments and about black culture from the 1930's to 60's. The particular focus is on the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Director Raoul Peck uses what is ultimately musings as a way of commenting on current issues like Black Lives Matter. In fact, Peck tries to draw a direct line from the racism that Baldwin witnessed to the racism of today. Unfortunately, the line isn't as direct as the one that Ava DuVernay draws in her film 13th. Peck's movie simply isn't as coherent or as cohesive as DuVernay's work. Despite Medgar, Malcolm and Martin all being black and civil rights leaders, their murders couldn't feel more disjointed in this movie.
Baldwin merely recounts where he was when he heard about their murders. He was in Puerto Rico when he heard about Medgar Evers getting killed. He was in London when he heard about Malcolm X's murder, and he was in Palm Springs when he heard about Martin Luther King's death. There's nothing particularly interesting or memorable about these moments, except in Palm Springs where he was working on a screenplay with Billy Dee Williams.
I think Baldwin is brilliant and one of the greatest black writers who has ever been, but a lot of this was a big "who cares?" If Baldwin had written this into a full-fledged book, then it could have been more engaging, but, as it stands, it's just fragments, a series of almost random thoughts about race and race relations.
It probably would have been better if it were Baldwin's actual voice. The narration is instead read by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson has a great voice, but it doesn't compare to Baldwin whose voice and tone were infinitely better. Here, it just feels like Jackson is rattling off notes from Baldwin's journal with no real verve or political drive.
Peck does edit actual clips of James Baldwin to fill out the documentary because even if Jackson had read all 30 pages slowly, it still wouldn't be enough to make a feature-length film. Yet, the clips of Baldwin only underscore why his voice and tone are better than listening to Jackson.
It's not a total wash. There are fascinating points here. The title of the movie is suggested when Baldwin goes through all the things he is not. He defied labels or the trappings of certain organized structures. His reviews and critiques of Sidney Poitier's films are also pretty fascinating, especially when he talks about the lack of sexuality in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) or even the homosexual subtext of In the Heat of the Night (1967).
It would almost be better if this movie were a traditional biography of Baldwin. It would have been a perfect companion to Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. It probably would have been better if it were Jackson reading the 30 pages to a slideshow of black-and-white, still photographs. What muddles this movie is Peck's insertion of incongruous things. His editing of certain things into this movie confused me.
At one point, Baldwin is critical of Robert Kennedy's statement of a Negro becoming president. Peck then dissolves to Barack and Michelle Obama on inauguration day. When he did, I was confused as to what Peck was trying to say with this edit. Is he trying to say that Baldwin's criticism is now dated? Or, is he saying that President Obama isn't a true Negro, given his biracial status? I wasn't sure.
At another point, Peck edits into the movie a montage of political apologies with a low opacity superimposed over something else. I simply didn't understand what it meant. A little later, he edits another montage of clips from The Jerry Springer Show, as well as various game shows, and I was scratching my head as to why. If he were trying to critique modern culture, cherry picking from certain TV shows is myopic to all of TV and is rather dumb.
Lastly, Peck edits a lot of film clips, excerpts from various movies, into his documentary here. Most of them make sense because they're films that Baldwin references like the Poitier movies. Yet, Peck inserts a clip from Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003). Again, I scratched my head to understand why. What does this movie about the real-life school shooting at Columbine High School by two deranged teenagers, killing mostly white people, have to do with the Civil Rights Movement?
Yes, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin were all killed by deranged gunmen, but so were a lot of people before and a lot of people since. I didn't see the significance of that 2003 film.
Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.