James Baldwin and Raoul Peck: “I Am Not Your Negro”

I want to close out African American History Month with a look at a new documentary directed by Raoul Peck. I Am Not Your Negro features a range of James Baldwin’s writings as well as rare television appearances and footage of Baldwin speaking at a variety of events.

Indeed, Baldwin’s writing and speaking are so central to this film that he is listed as the primary screenwriter, with Peck as compiler and editor. The words are powerful indeed – Baldwin at his peak of cultural commentary.

But as hard as it is to believe, the film is so much more even than Baldwin’s powerful writing and compelling speaking. Adding depth, complexity, nuance, and more than one emotional jolt is Peck’s expert direction. He achieves the seemingly impossible: collaborating with Baldwin thirty years after the famed writer’s death.

Here’s the story of I Am Not Your Negro.

In 1979, Baldwin wrote to his agent, Jay Acton, with a thirty-page proposal for a new book. It would offer commentary on the impact – both to Baldwin personally and to the nation collectively – of the successive murders of three of Baldwin’s friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The book would be titled Remember This House.

Unfortunately, Baldwin never wrote that book – but Baldwin’s sister, Gloria, gave the proposal to Peck, who saw a way to shape the film he’d been trying to piece together based on Baldwin’s writing and speaking. Using the proposal as a frame, he located rare footage of Baldwin’s television spots and speaking appearances. Then he drew also from a number of other pieces of Baldwin’s writings, all commenting on the history of black-white relations in the United States.

So Peck had his script – a mash-up comprised solely of Baldwin’s words. Working with editor Alexandra Strauss and archivist Marie-Hélène Barbéris, he then spliced together clips of Baldwin speaking with passages of his writing read by Samuel L. Jackson. Accompanying the verbal commentary are clips of influential films Baldwin mentions, still photos of lynchings, newspaper headlines, mug shots, footage of the police in riot gear in Ferguson, and video of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – and so much more. It is impossible to convey the sheer number of images and the vast amount of footage Peck and his team gathered. It is even harder to articulate the phenomenal cumulative impact they have on the viewer. In Strauss’s words, Peck succeeded in “bring[ing] into today’s context the brilliant thinking of James Baldwin.”

This is a film that definitely merits multiple viewings. It is dense and complex, both in the cultural critique Baldwin offers and the visual commentary Peck and his team add. If you are not able to see the film at your local cinema, it will be available on DVD starting on May 2. In addition, a helpful aid to reflecting on the film post-viewing is the companion book, which includes the film’s script, composed entirely of Baldwin’s interviews, speeches, and writing. The book also features a number of still photos used in the film.

The achievement here is, quite simply, stunning. At the opening of the companion book, Peck says, “I do not know of any other example of a film created strictly from the preexisting texts of one author.” From all that Baldwin left behind, the rich treasure trove of words and provocative ideas, Peck said he “wanted to make, as Baldwin wrote in his notes, ‘a funky dish of chitterlings.’” To cook up this funky dish, Peck “respect[ed] and preserv[ed] scrupulously the spirit, the philosophy, the pugnacity, the insight, the humor, the poetry, and the soul of the long-gone author.”

Baldwin says in the film (in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson) that he set himself to be a “witness” to what was happening to black America, especially in the 1960s. “The story of the negro in America,” he says, “is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” And he adds a bit later in the film, speaking to white Americans, “You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”

Nominated for an Oscar for best feature-length documentary and made with the full cooperation and support of the Baldwin estate, I Am Not Your Negro is an opportunity – a challenging opportunity – for white Americans to look at African Americans and at themselves closely. I highly recommend it.


Watch:Watch a three-minute featurette about the film I Am Not Your Negro.