Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the Alabama Senator who is about to become our new Attorney General, is named after two Civil War generals who fought on the Confederate side. According to the Washington Post, “former colleagues testified Sessions used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan.” That testimony came over thirty years ago, when Sessions was denied a judgeship for being too racist. That is not a problem anymore. It may be 2017, with a new Presidential administration shaping America’s station for generations to come, and yet we cannot escape our history – we live it constantly. That is one of many profound observations in I Am Not Your Negro, the searing, essential documentary from Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck. Through the sheer force of language and imagery, Peck uses an unlikely source to grapple with the psychological/physical violence that defines modern American life.
The film is an adaptation of “Remember This House,” an unfinished manuscript by the author and critic James Baldwin. The manuscript weaves together the lives and death of three civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers – and what they mean for modern race relations. In an unprecedented performance, Samuel L. Jackson provides the voiceover as he reads from the manuscript. Peck’s technique is fairly traditional: he mixes archival footage, clips from old films, and interviews/lectures from Baldwin himself. What makes I Am Not Your Negro unusual, as well as important, is its scope and ambition.
Peck takes his time, easing us into Baldwin’s mind. The first section, for example, Baldwin essentially functions as a film historian. He correctly notes that film and popular culture are continuous symbols of the status quo. Baldwin starts with early Joan Crawford films, then continues onto the feel-good, socially conscious films of Stanley Kramer, all the while noting how the imagery and narrative distort what it means to feel black and white.
The scenes with Evers, X, and King are bitter, and grief-stricken. Baldwin is different from them insofar that he had no religious affiliations, or desire fpr leadership. He was a self-confessed outsider – not just because he had more sympathy for white people than his contemporaries – and that isolation meant his insight was free of action or ideology. Peck also weaves footage of Ferguson and modern protest into film, and the final scenes are like a world-class address from one of our country’s most fertile, inquisitive minds.
I Am Not Your Negro admittedly has a dry premise, so Peck’s true masterstroke is casting Jackson as Baldwin. I’ve seen the film twice now, and the first time I had no clue I was hearing Jackson’s voice. He dials down his familiar, over-the-top cadence, speaking with the measured tones of a man with a pained conscience. Jackson does not attempt a Baldwin impression, exactly, and instead gives the words the dignity and heft they deserve. Peck includes a few flourishes that betray Jackson’s performance – some musical cues are incongruous – and yet those, too, draw from the same history as everything else. By the time Jackson reaches the final stretch, the language is so halting and spare the cumulative effect is devastating. I Am Not Your Negro can do more than change minds. It can challenge and disabuse your assumptions, recalibrating how you think.
Baldwin has a penchant for taking a simple idea, and turning it on its head. He looks at something simple, like a feel-good ending to a popular film, and notes how the conclusion is ultimately about false reconciliation. He looks at lynching, using words like “rage” and “terror” to articulate their purpose, just not in ways you might expect. Baldwin was not a revolutionary, nor was he a man of action. Instead, he looked at every part of the American experience, distilling them into questions whose asking will necessarily undermine our pretense of moral authority. These questions are mostly for white America, since the stain of racism is more psychologically devastating for perpetrators, not victims. I Am Not Your Negro does not lay blame, nor is it unfair. Peck and Baldwin expect more from conscientious Americans, and by the end of the film, we are close to thinking to thinking at their level, and to fixing the path before an misshapen orange boulder gets in the way.