I Am Not Your Negro – movie review

by Peter Calder / 09 October, 2017

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An enthralling and sobering documentary on US writer James Baldwin ringingly speaks to our age.

For the title of his paradigm-shifting 1963 book of two essays, The Fire Next Time, writer James Baldwin referenced a line from the slave song Mary Don’t You Weep, which runs, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, but the fire next time.”

It was scarcely an obscure message – not a threat, but a prediction; the book is suffused with much more sorrow than anger – and it is depressing to reflect that, more than 50 years on, “we shall overcome” has not become a quaint historical relic but has been replaced with #BlackLivesMatter. In Trump-era America, Baldwin’s message – at the book’s end, he warned of the risk of conflagration if “we do not end the racial nightmare and achieve our country” [emphasis added] – is more apposite and urgent than ever.

When Baldwin died, in 1987 in France, where he had lived in self-imposed exile for most of his 63 years, he left behind an unfinished 30-page manuscript: Remember This House was to have been a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It remains unpublished, but Raoul Peck’s enthralling, exhilarating and sobering documentary rescues it from literary-footnote status and brings it, and the writer, to vigorous, coruscating life.

Almost every word in the film, intoned in a gravelly voiceover by Samuel L Jackson, is drawn from Remember This House – apart, that is, from the words uttered by Baldwin in a generous selection of clips that bring him thrillingly to life. By turns imperious (as in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F Buckley, whose sneering rejoinders we are spared) and passionate (“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel,” he tells a fellow guest on The Dick Cavett Show. “I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.”), he is a figure of both camp splendour and rare wit. Little wonder that his literate and nuanced analyses, which positioned him midway between the non-violence of Martin Luther King and the “by any means necessary” of Malcolm X, drew such scorn from radical activists, including Eldridge Cleaver.

Peck has been criticised for serving Baldwin straight, for making no attempt to contextualise what he had to say, but that is surely its beauty: what’s most confronting about the film is how ringingly it speaks to our age, to a time in which the small city of Ferguson, Missouri, can become an overnight byword for institutionalised racism.

If there are dots to be joined, it is for white people, Baldwin would say, to join them and to ask themselves “why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place”.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★★

This article was first published in the September 30, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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