'I Am Not Your Negro': James Baldwin's unfinished work

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
  • The documentary opens Friday at Small Star Art House.
  • 4 stars out of 4

Thirty pages of notes and an invisible pile of regrets were all the writer James Baldwin had in his hands when he abandoned work on a book, initiated in 1979, he called "Remember This House."
Baldwin knew his subjects well. He was taking on three historical melodies in the key of civil rights activism, all victims of assassination: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., whom Baldwin called friends.

"He took on his shoulders the weight of the crimes, and the lies and the hope of a nation," Baldwin wrote of King, in a letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent. "I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as, in truth, they did."
From that unfinished project, the Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck has made a splendid documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro." The words we hear in voice-over, spoken in an artful, Baldwinian cadence by Samuel L. Jackson, belong entirely to the author of the book that never came to pass. Everything Baldwin said then, about race and America, speaks with urgent prescience to the America Baldwin (who died in 1987) never saw but saw coming, because he'd seen it before: Rodney King. Ferguson. Black Lives Matter. All of it. The necessity for all of it.
Peck and his editor, Alexandra Strauss, wrap Baldwin's observations, taken from the book notes and private correspondence, inside a beautiful, troubling stream of archival film, video and television footage. Take, for example, the 1965 Cambridge University debate, in which Baldwin addresses a recent comment made by Robert Kennedy, in which Kennedy said he saw "no reason," in the "foreseeable future, that a Negro could not also be president of the United States." Baldwin's response is elegant, surprising, provocative, as is his 1968 appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show."
Hollywood's mostly excruciating images of black life, many recalled by Baldwin from his childhood moviegoing, run a gamut from "Imitation of Life" (1934) to "They Won't Forget" (1937) to John Wayne and Doris Day. From a generation forward, Baldwin's wonderful on the way white and black audiences received the ending of the popular, high-minded 1958 drama "The Defiant Ones." And as a gay black man, he's equally insightful regarding how the stardom afforded Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte was a neutered sort of fame, boxed in by "the furtive, infantile sexuality of this country."
I'll leave it to you to discover how, and how well, "I Am Not Your Negro" incorporates these bits with fragments of FBI correspondence (Baldwin was, in the eyes of the agency, "an homosexual" and therefore a "threat to national security") and clips of "The Gong Show," of all things. Peck shows a sociologist's eye for the telling detail. One by one, Baldwin's heroes were eliminated in the 1960s. The book he hoped to write was a book about himself, too. The bloody, racist forces destroying his subjects, which we now couch in milder, misleading discussions of "white nationalism" and "alt-right," have infected the body politic with renewed virulence in the 21st century.
This movie isn't just a tribute to Baldwin. It's a warning bell regarding leaders who, in Baldwin's words, care only about "their safety and their profits."

4 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:35

James Baldwin, center, in "I Am Not Your Negro." In Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary, Baldwin's searing observations on race and America are resurrected for today. The film opens Friday at Small Star Art House.