I’m not normally much of a documentary watcher. If you ask me why I’d probably give you the excuse that I don’t have the time. That I have so many other films to watch and so many books to read. This is clearly nonsense. What I’ve discovered over the past few weeks is that I’m not as great an activist as I’d like to believe. It’s not that I don’t believe in the causes that I go on and on about. It’s more that I’m often too afraid of putting my money where my mouth is. Not watching documentaries like this is just another way to shield myself from real life. It helps me stay inside my little bubble where I can pretend that the world isn’t as bad as it actually is. So, as part of my vow to live a more non-racist lifestyle, I’m making sure that I watch all of the films that I let pass me by. As I’d already read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk this week, it only seemed right to start here.
James Baldwin is quite the wordsmith. Take the following quotation taken from an appearance on a radio panel:
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.
This simple quote succinctly and powerfully speaks about a race of people living in America. Baldwin had an innate ability to get to the heart of what it was to be a Black person living in his country during the civil rights movement that it’s no wonder his works have found a prominent place in the current Black Lives Movement. Baldwin was angry but he was level-heeded and passionate. His words cut to the very soul of the civil rights movement.
It’s something that Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary does such a good job of showing us. The clips of Baldwin speaking in public or to the media are astounding. You feel his pain and his sadness in every word but you hear the fight. He refuses to be beaten down or ignored. What makes it so much more striking is that those feelings have proven to be timeless. So little has changed since Baldwin was at the peak of his career. Rage is still such a prominent part of what it means to be Black in America in 2020. So, I Am Not Your Negro is exactly the sort of thing that the world needs to be watching right now.
Peck’s documentary is inspired by Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House. The book was a memoir that pulled together his personal experiences with key figures of the civil rights movement. He wanted to talk about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr but the writer died before he could ever finish it. The film is made up from a collection of notes and letters that Baldwin wrote in the 70s. It is aided by archive footage of the civil rights movement in the 60s and in modern-day America. Baldwin’s words are brought to life thanks to Samuel L Jackson’s calm and careful narration. It all works together wonderfully.
The words that make up the short documentary are taken from various places but they have all been edited together beautifully. There is a fantastic story and the use of footage and photographs fills in the gaps perfectly. It ends up being quite rounded and appears to give quite a clear timeframe of the period. I don’t think it’s quite a perfect piece of work and it does skirt over several aspects of Baldwin’s own life. However, as a documentary on race, it is a powerful and unforgettable film. It is an important film. In another director’s hand, this might have easily fallen apart but Peck manages to bring the writer’s words together perfectly. What he gives us is a narrative that links him to the 2017 America. It’s hardly subtle but that doesn’t make it any less frightening that things have barely changed since Baldwin’s death.