I Am Not Your Negro review: Raoul Peck assembles a powerful documentary based on the unfinished work of poet, author and social critic James Baldwin.
I Am Not Your Negro review by Paul Heath at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival.
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a feature documentary based on James Baldwin’s unpublished texts from the title Remember This House, and screens in the Panorama Documentary section here in Berlin, following an impressive debut at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it was presented with the People’s Choice award.
I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful work exploring the racism in the United States during his lifetime, and specifically around the three public figures and friends in Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film is a catalog of Baldwin’s observations taken from the unfinished work, as well as some archive footage and on-screen dialogue captured from Baldwin’s many television appearances over his lifetime. Remember This House was a collection of thirty pages of text, which was unfinished at the time of his death in 1987, and is here performed, the correct verb, by Samuel L. Jackson who narrates off-screen.
Peck’s uncompromising film is deeply stimulating and absorbing, astonishing and commanding. The filmmaker employs the use of masses of library material, be it from relevant film footage from movies that influenced Baldwin’s early life, to black and white newsreel sequences featuring King, Evers and Malcolm X themselves, all accompanied by Jackson’s discerning tones.
Baldwin is credited as the film’s sole screenwriter and his text laces the movie as the only insight, the poet’s words sometimes layered over horrific scenes of lynchings from the early twentieth century, to the 1992 Watts riots and to the 2014 Ferguson shootings. Despite a text being over thirty years old it’s sadly, and worryingly, still so pertinent even now with the rise of far-right politics, and Peck’s skillful assembly hits this home hard.
Clearly deserved of its best documentary nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, I Am Not Your Negro is a film to raise many talking points, and so many questions, the biggest one still, why? This is original, ground-breaking, urgent and vital film-making; a documentary that really all must see. The only film that we’ve seen at a packed Berlinale screening this year where the audience, following rapturous applause, walked out in utter silence, only to then burst into concentrated, rapid-fire discussion over the content as soon as we had all just witnessed started to sink in.
Striking, unadulterated, uncompromising, important cinema.
I Am Not Your Negro review by Paul Heath, February 2017.
I Am Not Your Negro plays at the 2017 Berlin Film festival. It will open in cinemas later in 2017.