TIFF Review: ‘I am Not Your Negro’

Winner of the People's Choice Award for Documentary

7 mins read

I Am Not Your Negro
(USA/France/Belgium/Switzerland, 93 min.)
Dir Raoul Peck, Writ. James Baldwin
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Raoul Peck delivers an essential essay on race in America with I Am Not Your Negro. His doc draws from the work of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin and Peck uses a wealth of his brilliantly crafted words to create a searing portrait of the USA’s legacy of racism. Peck constructs a taut and expertly crafted patchwork that blends past and present, archival footage and meditated images, and reality and fiction to confront America’s history of violence towards minorities, in particular Black Americans. History repeats itself in a vicious cycle and Peck’s doc passionately argues that the issues addressed by Baldwin are just as relevant today: nothing has improved.

Baldwin is a fine subject with which to interrogate the fault lines of America. A well- spoken, and articulate intellectual, he’s an essential voice of the 1960s and ‘70s America. Greatly admired then, his name and work endure on the periphery in comparison to the legacy of his contemporaries Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., which makes Peck’s decision to draw from Baldwin’s writing especially provocative. Without the familiar idioms and quotable lines that popular culture frequently invokes to remember a movement, the authoritative prose of Baldwin’s writing commands attention. Savour every word of his compelling essays as Peck judiciously incorporates the writer’s body of work into a singular text.

Every line from I Am Not Your Negro comes from a Baldwin work as Peck draws from a range of his writing that includes formal essays, letters, personal scribblings, and, most intriguingly, film reviews. Baldwin’s film criticism serves as a running commentary on American race relations throughout the doc as Peck presents scenes from Hollywood classics such as The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Imitation of Life joined together with the writer’s commentary. Baldwin’s incisive interpretations of these films, and particularly of the complex star persona of Sidney Poitier, deconstruct the creation of a subordinate Black identity in mass media. Images in America were (and, unfortunately, still are many pockets) largely created by whites for white audiences, and the film conveys the power of popular culture to share a collective ethos of power dynamics and inclusion/exclusion.

Just as importantly, I am Not Your Negro presents a wealth of visual archival material that includes an interview with Baldwin on the ‘60s alternative to Johnny Carson, the ABC-TV nationally broadcast The Dick Cavett Show in which the writer passionate debates racial identity. One sequence, which Peck offers at length, sees Baldwin heatedly confront the ignorance of a fellow panelist who dismisses the latent racism of white Americans. Baldwin responds with one of the most forceful and articulate counterarguments for the subtle racism that exists in daily acts and transactions, and he thoroughly conveys with palpable conviction that society needs to awaken from its wilful blindness. The fire in his voice is not one of anger, but of frustration. He is clearly fed up of seeing history repeat itself because changing the course of society’s path is too inconvenient for the masses. Peck’s film conveys the same restlessness and hunger for change.

As an ex-pat who lived in London and Paris in addition to the USA, Baldwin’s voice draws from an experience shaped outside of an isolated American-centric environment. His writing, which Samuel L. Jackson reads as voiceover with soft-spoken authority, uses the comparative inclusivity and openness to multiculturalism of Europe to reflect upon the backwards conservatism of the new world when it comes to race relations. The detachment and objectivity gives the work the fire it needs.

I am Not Your Negro reverberates strongly despite much of the text within the film coming from over 40 years back in history. Footage and still frames from the recent shootings of unarmed Black men and children like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown echo as the audience also views the chilling and iconic footage of the unarmed Rodney King taking a severe beating by the LAPD. Contemporary images appear in desaturated black and white while greyscale footage from the archives adopts a tinted palette as Peck uses the archival form of the film to melt history into the violence of today. The juxtaposition between footage of Bobby Kennedy speculating that a Black man will be President of the United States within 40 years is provocative as shots of President Obama’s inauguration invite audiences to marvel at the significance of his election. It also demands that viewers consider how much progress has been made or if this milestone is mostly symbolic.

Peck’s doc is arguably the zeitgeist film of the year. I am Not Your Negro premieres in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movements as citizens are rising up against police violence and taking a stand against racial prejudice. Coming at a time when unequal representation in film is being called out and more diversity behind the camera and on the screen has a huge number of advocates, I Am Not Your Negro succinctly articulates fundamental issues with passion and conviction. While the words of the film are unique to a Black writer, Baldwin’s work has universal resonance that speaks to the experience of anyone at the margins. Baldwin says that the story of race in America is the story of America, and this excellent doc demands audiences to wake up.

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Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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