The idea of historic recurrence is one that has animated several thinkers to stress the importance of how a particular moment in time may be repeated over and over unless we deal with its causes. In other words, that some episodes in politics are interrelated, not isolated, creating the conditions for their own continued occurrence. With I Am Not Your Negro, documentary director Raoul Peck not only sees the importance of history but is able to clearly and vividly make the case for understanding how different episodes of race relations in America should be seen as a whole and not as moments in time that stand alone.
The documentary features a deep exploration of the work of critical thinker James Baldwin, who shares screenwriting credit with Peck, and how he saw current events during the civil rights movement and beyond. Peck picks up where Baldwin left off in articulating an explanation of racial relations through the African-American perspective. With his film, Peck continues to use that same philosophy to connect that history to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Peck is not preachy, but his dynamic style of editing makes complex ideas and connections tractable through images and testimonials from then and today. It is not a confrontational argument, rather one that seeks to bridge communication and makes a point to say that to be inclusive one has to listen to different voices, especially the ones being affected or have been traditionally underrepresented.
Baldwin narrates his cultural commentary on how “white America” has depicted a version of black people as constructs through its cultural production in film and television. Baldwin also explains how these constructs affect perceptions in the other direction: as black people’s understanding of white America. Through this narrative, Peck is able to insert visual examples of those explanations in a thoughtful way using animations to powerfully represent these discourses. It is such an eloquent example of visual narrative that its remarkable achievement of being nominated for an Oscar by the same establishment he critiques is a testament to his genius.
Baldwin’s words are delivered by Samuel L. Jackson in a moving performance that had me forget he once was a “bad motherfucker” in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Here, Jackson’s voice serves as a bridge for a documentary that feels more like the beginning of a conversation than an expositional explanation of an issue. It is no doubt a personal issue for Jackson, as his performance delivers a range of emotions coming through the screen in a carefully pieced together combination of archival and new footage.
The documentary also focuses on the perils of the civil rights movement for some of its participants. Peck includes the assassination of Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Although the circumstances were different, the immense impact of having a life terminated because of the exercise of one of the most primordial rights is at the bottom of these deaths. The inclusion here is not a call to arms, rather, to punctuate the current violence under racial basis and how it compares and relates to other points of American history — like two ends of the same string. It is a smart move, setting an overall tone of connectedness that makes this documentary a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone who ever wondered about race relations or the meaning of citizenship in a democracy.
I Am Not Your Negro runs 93 minutes and is rated PG-13. A screener link was provided by Magnolia Pictures for the purpose of this review. The documentary opens in South Florida on Feb. 3 at O Cinema Wynwood and Regal South Beach 18. For screenings nationwide please click here.