First thing to realise: it’s not a bio-doc at all. The life and character of James Baldwin unfolds, rather, in fragments of archive and doses of precept-altering politics. Director Raoul Peck calls it a “creative documentary” and he uses Baldwin’s writings, photos and 1970s TV appearances really to re-examine racial bigotry today.
Ostensibly, Peck picks over the unfinished book Baldwin was authoring about his friends Medger Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, the three assassinated Ms of the civil rights movement. Peck got Samuel L Jackson to do the narration, and the actor delivers a brilliant vocal performance, perhaps the most restrained of his career.
Through those words, Peck also launches an examination of the history of Hollywood prejudice and subliminal racial messaging in the movies, looking from DW Griffith to Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier, covering The Defiant Ones and In The Heat of the Night with particular poignancy and perceptiveness. It did leave me wanting more of a movie on that subject alone.
However, you couldn’t be disappointed in what else is packed into I Am Not Your Negro. It was Oscar-nominated, and was the most inventive and experimental work among the nominees, even more than Italy’s Fire At Sea.
It is an incendiary work of admirable skill, a potent, jazzy, cocktail that channels its ire into thoughtful broadsides, just the way the cool, laconic, firebrand Baldwin would have done, slaying the viewer with slaps of cogent logic, right between the eyes. In the end, we have a grippingly unique film that boasts all the style and rebellious intellectual power that its subject did. Miss it at your peril.