Samuel L. Jackson reads an unfinished work by James Baldwin in the ever more timely documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which expands just 30 pages of notes on a planned book, “Remember This House,” into a full-length feature through archival footage and voiceover taken from Baldwin’s books, essays, interviews, broadcasts, speeches and films.
Baldwin planned a book on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. This film takes the planned structure of that book and utilizes it for a documentary about those three men through the lens of Baldwin’s work. We learn not just about those civil rights leaders, but about Baldwin, whose work is classic, yet chillingly and entirely current.
This Academy Award-nominated film, which came out before the recent Charlottesville events, was already incredibly prescient and relevant, and you literally cannot tell the difference between footage from the 1960s and, when in black and white, footage from this decade. Photographs of men holding up signs with swastikas that say “White Supremacy” could be from the last millennium or the last month.
In our era of hot takes and a 24-hour news cycle of frothing talking heads, the experience of watching the carefully chosen, evenly spoken words of Baldwin, a writer, is truly humbling. His measured, reasoned responses spoken by Jackson and, most powerfully, by Baldwin himself — on “The Dick Cavett Show” and others — are truly eye-opening. You think you know all about what he’s going to say — of course equality is good! — but the intelligence and clarity of his words is breathtaking.
What an arch, dignified, thoughtful man, and how (unusually) reserved a performance we get from Samuel L. Jackson, whose famous voice is known for its quality of outrage. Baldwin is humbly aware of his own limitations when he compares himself to his close friends whom he sought to write about, admitting he does not share the responsibilities they do, and admitting the privilege he took when he left the United States for Paris. He describes so clearly the advantage this perspective gave him, and what drove him, reluctantly but inescapably, back to his native country. He felt it was time to pay his dues.
The film also brilliantly weaves in film and television of the time, with clips of a range of culture, from Stepin Fetchit to Sidney Poitier, the garish “Gong Show” and the melodramatic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” One cannot argue that things today have improved very much when Baldwin says, “There is really little difference between entertainment and narcotic.”
His opinion on so many aspects of American life is searing, caustic and fairly bleak, but by the film’s end it is hard to disagree with much of what he says. He takes every supposed enlightened impulse and sees through it. He explicates the problem of racism as so much more profound than we want it to be. When he describes Bobby Kennedy saying that in 40 years America may see a black president, Baldwin scoffs and reads Kennedy’s statement with the addendum “If you’re good.” He rejects the condescending olive branch.
I didn’t want to watch “I Am Not Your Negro.” I felt uncomfortable just writing the title. I thought it wasn’t “for” me. I thought I didn’t need to be exposed to whatever I presumed it had to say. I was very wrong. This was a very profound experience, artistically and culturally. Baldwin reserves his harshest criticism for just such a person, an example of which he gives as “the Kennedy brothers,” not malevolent but “apathetic and ignorant.” In the words of Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” is currently available to rent, and to stream for free on Hoopla through the Mobile Public library.