I am Not Your Negro (12) – A Preview

Novelist and playwright James Baldwin is perhaps best known for his social essays on the deeply divided US society that surrounded him, not least his unfinished manuscript Remember This House, a personal memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary takes the text of that manuscript and juxtaposes it with a harvested collection of startling images, presenting a compelling thesis on civil rights in the US.

More a collage than a coherent narrative, Peck’s mix of archive footage and movie clips is reminiscent of the work of Julian Temple – he is clearly more concerned with creating an overall mood than worrying about whether his audience understands every last clip. To that extent, a broad understanding of the subject helps immeasurably, though no one could fail to be moved by Baldwin’s words. Samuel L Jackson’s cool rendition of those words is not an impersonation of Baldwin, but there’s enough of his tone and manner to create a chill when put alongside archive footage of the man himself.

Eloquent and persuasive, and with a frankness that is shocking to our ears, Baldwin’s indignation at the perpetual abuse people of colour endured during segregation is tempered by an intellect that makes bigotry seem not just an outrage, but also absurd. As Peck’s footage makes explicit, it’s a prejudice that remains rife, perhaps even resurgent, today.

By David Vass

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