Sometimes we get the movies we want, sometimes we get the ones we need, and once in a great while we get one that we didn’t know we wanted or needed, but that arrives by way of karmic necessity: a stinging rebuke, a searing provocation and a soothing balm all in one.
The latest cinematic miracle is “I Am Not Your Negro,” an elegant, emotionally devastating film by Raoul Peck about James Baldwin. This isn’t a soup-to-nuts biographical documentary. Instead, Peck has used an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin as a way to explore the evolving psyche of one of America’s pre-eminent men of letters, and as a springboard to explore how racism, identity, history and collective denial and shame have conspired to forge a bifurcated American culture.
In 1979, Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent proposing a book called “Remember This House,” about his relationships with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The letter was a brilliant essay, exploring Baldwin’s search for his place in the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and his sense of betrayal when even the most well-meaning white people were rarely able to look squarely at the violence done in the name of racial supremacy.
The lens through which Baldwin’s manuscript examines these themes is the murders of Evers, King and Malcolm, but he widens his gaze to take in American popular culture as well, from the Westerns he eagerly watched as a child to such liberal parables as “In the Heat of the Night,” with its narrative of reassurance toward whites and sublimation of black rage. Read with sensitivity and subtlety by Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin’s book — only 30 pages were completed when he died in 1987 — bristles with the laser-like anger and long-held sense of grievance that Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were forced to suppress onscreen, lest they offend their white fans’ sense of innocence.
Peck creates a riveting portrait of Baldwin’s keen intelligence animated by a fearless spirit and a grasp of extemporaneous speech at its most Shakespearean. Peck illustrates Baldwin’s writings and speeches not only with moving archival images, but with modern-day footage from Ferguson, Mo., and the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is a brilliant film bursting with fierce urgency, not just for the long-unresolved history it seeks to confront, but in its attempt to understand what is happening here, right now.
“I A Not Your Negro”
Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent images, mature thematic material, strong language and brief nudity. 1:33. Kentucky.