“I Am Not Your Negro”
Directed by Raoul Peck
Not all documentary features, even those focused on hot-button and socially relevant issues, are told with a hammer, slick graphics or high volume. There exists a different way to communicate importance, feeling and passion…a more languid way. Often this languid form is attached to a specific city…most notably Terence Davies’ “Of Time and the City”, or the much more successful “London: The Modern Babylon” from the master of the languid, Julien Temple. Consisting as they do of imagery specific to a time and place, with the brilliant words of a single person, told quietly…languidly, they defy the need to grab you, and rather, lure you.
Raoul Peck’s incredible “I Am Not Your Negro”, a biting, gripping and visceral documentary, has much more in common with this languid form of storytelling than other documentaries about the burgeoning civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties (and its relation to current struggles), such as Ava DuVarnay’s “13th”, which spends more time bashing you over the head with facts and noise (not that it is any less powerful – just different).
Using, as its “script”, the notes from “Remember This House”, a book Baldwin was never able to finish about his relationship to Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., the film slowly wends its way to each of their murders. And because Baldwin chose his words so carefully and specifically, you want it to go slowly, there is no sense of urgency – only import. It is hypnotic…successfully mixing in news footage of the day with long slow tracking shots of the neighborhoods as they exist now.
And the words, incredibly well placed words, thoughts and emotions, are brilliantly expressed via a quiet and still narration. Speaking as James Baldwin with such control, I was very surprised that the mellifluous, yet intense voice belonged to Samuel L. Jackson. It might be his greatest performance…certainly his most controlled and subtle. The VO alone, the ability to hear Baldwin’s words told in this manner, is worth the price of admission.
But the craftsmanship is not restricted to the words. Peck’s ability to mix these disparate and quiet elements in to an extremely forceful and gripping hour and three quarters is extraordinary. A subject that could easily have given way to grandstanding, and utilizing a plan of attack that could have easily given way to academia, Peck not only avoids both pitfalls, he leaps over them.
The year is loaded with many must-see documentaries, some of the best of which were not nominated for an Oscar, including Keith Maitland’s brilliantly creative “The Tower”, Kirsten Johnson’s personal, yet universal “Cameraperson”, or Otto Bell’s gorgeous “The Eagle Huntress”. Thankfully, however, “I Am Not Your Negro” was nominated. Now, while I don’t believe an Oscar nomination is necessarily a sign of a doc’s quality, it’s inclusion in that exclusive grouping does ensure that more people will be afforded the opportunity to witness it.
And, along with Ezra Edelman’s “OJ: Made In America” and DuVarnay’s “13th”, three variations on a common theme, it must be witnessed if we are to even remotely understand the present.
Do not pass up the chance to see this film.
Written on 2/7/2017