James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson, & I Am Not Your Negro

A documentary
Written by James Baldwin
Directed by Raoul Peck

In the final decade of his life, author James Baldwin wrote 30 pages of an unfinished book about his own experiences, his friendships with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African American experience in general.

Now Raoul Peck has turned Baldwin’s unfinished book into a fully conceived and powerful feature-length documentary – with Baldwin’s words, read by Samuel L. Jackson, working as the narration. It provides a deep, searing view of the African-American experience, concentrating primarily but not exclusively to the turmoils of the 50s and 60s. We see the marches, the angry white crowds (some holding signs with swastikas –at a time when Nazi Germany was a recent memory), and the aftermaths of his friends’ assassinations.

But Baldwin’s story, and Peck’s view of it, also shows us white Americans from a black point of view. We see Attorney General Robert Kennedy looking offended in a conversation with black activists. Popular movie heroes like John Wayne appear as threats. And 1950s images of a perfectly happy, and perfectly white, America.

For a film that is basically a reading of a long essay, I Am Not Your Negro manages to be surprisingly interesting visually. Old news footage, of course, dominates the images. But Peck also includes contemporary images of America – presumably shot for the film – along with clips from old movies, usually showing either racial stereotypes or the lack of non-whites.

Jackson’s voice isn’t the only one we hear. Clips of television talk shows, usually with Baldwin being interviewed, give us his words not as he typed them, but as he explained and argued in very public forums. Many of the movie clips come with their own soundtrack. And in one news clip, Robert Kennedy predicts that, maybe in 40 years, we’ll have a black president. And as it turned out, that was almost exactly right.

Jackson makes a surprising yet appropriate choice to voice Baldwin’s words. As every one of those old TV interviews reminds us, the star of Pulp Fiction sounds nothing like Baldwin, who had the voice of a mild-mannered, erudite, slightly effeminate intellectual. Even in an argument, he sounds calm and controlled. Jackson, on the hand, sounds like a deep-voiced, righteously angry demigod. But Baldwin’s words, at least in I Am Not Your Negro, reads more like Jackson’s voice than his own.

Every American should see I Am Not Your Negro. Unfortunately, only those already sympathetic to its message will likely catch it.