James Baldwin is at the center of the new documentary I Am Not Your Negro, but it’s not a biography. Instead, it’s an essay about the history of race in America composed posthumously from Baldwin’s notes. Baldwin is at the center of the film; it’s constructed around his narration (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) and his televised appearances serve as supplementary arguments. He shares his own story, but he only uses it as an example of the larger African-American experience.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a documentary as carefully constructed as I Am Not Your Negro; it builds an argument with literary precision. Director Raoul Peck complements the words with unsettling images, the parts of history that most would consider to be too uncomfortable to recall: racist advertisements, old films with cringe-worthy stereotypes of African-Americans, the bodies of people killed by lynching and gunshot.
The film opens with Baldwin lamenting the deaths of his three of his contemporaries: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Malcolm X. Through those three men, Baldwin explores the African-American story of the mid-20th century — the differing philosophies and backgrounds and religions that made up a multifaceted movement that often gets glossed over in high school history classes.
But the central perspective of the film is Baldwin’s. He’s weary and brilliant and powerful, and he believes in something better, even as he deeply understands the injustice that is at the heart of the American bargain. This is a film that is worthy of him.