Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Remember this House is the title of James Baldwin’s manuscript for what would have been his last book. It is also the spine of Raoul Peck’s latest documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. Peck, with access to Baldwin’s manuscript, published and unpublished Baldwin works, as well as private letters and notes, crafts a poignant and moving film essay about race in America, while completing the tale Baldwin would never finish.

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I had the privelage of seeing this film at its screening during the New York Film Festival, and it’s one of the few times that I found myself a part of an audience, that I can truly say, was captivated. When the lights went down you could feel the stillness, you could hear a pin drop, and for 93 minutes it was as if the members of the audience fused to become a singular being. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin’s words with a composure unlike what we are used to hearing from him. Often times a narrator is chosen for the distinct qualities of their speech, but when the narrator is reading Baldwin, the words, not the voice, must take center stage. This is perhaps the first time that Samuel L. Jackson, while a constant presence, goes largely unnoticed in a film. This is a true testament to the power of Baldwin’s words and clarity as an author.

Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember this House, dissects race relations in America through the assassinations of his three friends, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers. In Baldwin fashion, these three assassinations are used as a means to stitch together America’s entire history of racial politics.

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Peck himself stated that, “day-by-day this documentary went from important, to urgent.” This much is evident as we see footage from stretching from the 1960s to the modern day, emphasizing that what has changed is really nothing at all. As a huge fan of Baldwin, Peck’s film essay feels to me like a very important and necessary film. It is not often that a documentary can bring you inside the mind and emotions of one of the 20th century’s most important literary minds.

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