Raoul Peck’s documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro, begins with three lives cut short in 1960s America – the assassination of Medgar Evers (d. 1963), Malcolm X (d. 1965) and Martin Luther King Jr (d. 1968) – and a writer, James Baldwin, trying to make sense of their deaths.
Each of the men was a figure in the civil rights movement and Baldwin, a prolific essayist as well as novelist, had planned to write about his country through the prism of their fight. He never finished the project – he died in 1987 – but left 30 typed pages with the title, ‘Notes Toward Remember This House’.
Peck is well-placed to bring Baldwin’s words alive again, as someone who came to his writing early in life and saw how the structures and relationships he described matched his own experiences growing up in Haiti and then New York.
Having wanted to make a film about the writer for several years, Peck was eventually given Baldwin’s notes by the author’s younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, and these papers became the key to his project.
“The notes themselves were not much to start with,” the director writes in the introduction to the film-script, published by Penguin in the UK, “but they were more than enough, given that I also had access to everything else from Baldwin. My job was to find the unwritten book.”
The task became like that of a librettist, he says, assembling a script for an opera together from the “scattered words of a revered author”. The first draft was 50 pages – three hours of screen time – and so Peck permitted himself more freedom, “reversing paragraphs, phrases, or, more rarely, words.”
Echoing Baldwin’s own tendency to rewrite sentences across different media (one might appear in a letter, find its way on to notepaper before finally being used in an essay), the director saw a way of using “the best version that suited the purpose”.
His film is therefore a blend of fragments – of Baldwin’s unrealised work, of photographs and footage of him and of the civil rights movement and its sad counter-reaction (children holding placards that read ‘We won’t go to school with negroes’), alongside clips from television and film from the early 20th-century to the present day.
These portions of old films show how popular culture was influential in shaping America’s perception of race – and Baldwin’s own acceptance of himself as a young black man in the 1930s. While cinema was a place where ‘Indians’ fought ‘cowboys’, there came a shocking realisation, Baldwin notes, that when he looked in the mirror he had more in common with the ‘bad’ characters than the ‘good’ – “that the Indians were you”.
Samuel L Jackson narrates Baldwin’s written words, while the footage of the author reveals him to be a compelling public speaker. Whether discussing language on the Dick Cavett show to addressing the Cambridge Union, Baldwin is formidable and captivating.
I Am Not Your Negro is a brilliant, powerful film which grapples with America’s troubled relationship with race, shows Baldwin as the truly gifted intellectual he was – and makes us consider how much of what he and many others fought for still requires our commitment.
“I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other,” Baldwin wrote of how he might honour his murdered friends. Peck enables him this last request and this vital piece of film-making celebrates the work of a man who so effortlessly caught the problems of his time and ours.
I Am Not Your Negro is in cinemas now. See iamnotyournegrofilm.com. Produced by Rémi Grellety, Raoul Peck and Hébert Peck and distributed by Altitude. Photo used at top of post: Two Minute Warning, Spider Martin, 1965