I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck; written by James Baldwin (2016 USA) Samuel Jackson
viewed Film Forum NYC, 21st Feb 2017; ticket .00
As I left the cinema with my companion Ana Marton, she turned to me and said: It’s a labour of love! And I immediately understood that she was right because if there is one thing that stands out in Raoul Peck’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro , it is that there is love at the heart of his film.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ feels like the film of a director who has read and reread James Baldwin many times, each time absorbing him the more deeply into his blood. Reaching the point, from all considerations, where a film, not made about but with Baldwin, was possible. A film in which not everything could be said, but in which much that was essential in the writer could be uttered.
Viewing ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ it feels like Raoul Peck (RP) has consciously minimised his own presence, almost disappeared from the film. Because this is Baldwin’s film. And RP knows he has made Baldwin’s film and no one should take the credit for Baldwin’s film but Baldwin. His is the voice.
Of course ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is a finely crafted film and in that respect it is Peck’s seamless fusion of Baldwin’s strong voice and the film material that almost renders his own presence invisible. RP writes himself out of the script allowing him to refine his task so as to actualise the life and writing of the poet and writer who has inspired and shaped the lives of those many born without the protective carapace of white skin.
Raoul Peck’s intention in the film is to give total primacy to the writing. Nothing is more important. Baldwin’s writing commands the screen, allowing his voice to ring clearly across the years since his death in 1987. Releasing Baldwin’s words so that they might resonate today with acuity intelligence and insight into the heart of present day America.
An America that in Baldwin’s terms is still a sick troubled society. Baldwin’s predictions bear witness today to the primacy of Donald Trump; perhaps a sicker more troubled culture now than in the 1960’s and 1970’s epitomised in the continuing fate of its black population to be looked upon as a despised degenerate slave people. A fate made more urgent and cogent by the fact that the political discourse about ‘blacks’ is spoken in a euphemistic code of political correctness that overlays the deeply buried prejudice and discrimination.
Peck’s script is largely based on Baldwin’s 1975 work, ‘No name in the street’. This is sometimes described as a group of essays. It is not. It is rather an autobiographical work that is structured in the manner of a stream of consciousness. It intermixes the personal memory, reflection and analysis of white culture and society, and interpolates into the text the significance and deaths of the the three great black American resistance figures of the 20th century, with all of whom, Baldwin had worked and fought. Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King.
Baldwin’s utterance, voiced by the deep sonorous bass of Samuel Jackson, is the dominant affect in the movie, Baldwin’s writing is the truth content, energising and organising the visual material, the affect that points to the significance of the visual imagery. What we see is images that are an extension of the voice’s perception: images drawn from originary material of Baldwin himself such as his 1965 Cambridge debate; archive material of King Evans and Malcolm X; and movie clips from popular Hollywood film that range from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. In addition RP makes some use of present day coverage of race riots in Milwaukie and Ferguson to extend the scope of Baldwin’s vision into the present day, and to give the lie to the endless stream of white faces appearing on televisions to tell the black people that they are: “Sorry!”. Sorry for what?
And: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ did not win a 2017 Oscar. No surprise. The boys and girls in the Hollywood back rooms were never going to give the gong to James Baldwin. I mean you have to take the film’s title seriously. Baldwin’s idea was to tell truth, his truth: not to entertain. Thanks RP. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org