“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Director Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is not a film that lends itself to casual nor dispassionate viewing. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck’s exploration of the civil rights movement and pervasive racism, composed of spoken excerpts from James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, emphatic as it is, still renders itself as emotive as it is confronting.
A clear commentary on that tumultuous period in the 1960s on the part of both the Director and his subject, too examining the likes of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Peck goes further by infusing the documentary with imagery and instances far beyond Baldwin’s lifetime, most notably the beating of Rodney King, the 2008 Presidential election and the events which ever so recently took place in Ferguson, Missouri.
A re-examination of the era and more pointedly the figure being fairly incomplete without a due reflection on the relevance of sentiments expressed historically to today’s world, Peck’s documentary has an enormous potential to engage modern audiences through making a film, though focused on events past, that is still very evidently a product of and reaction to a situation that is irrevocably present.
Expounding on Baldwin’s prose with archival footage, iconic photographs and sections of a well-known debate between Baldwin and an adversary which could just as well have engaged viewers for greater lengths of the film, Peck paints a vivid picture of the time and social upheaval. The choice inclusion of sections of seminal cinema, including two still very apposite Sidney Poitier films, did not go astray.
There are sections of this documentary that many may find antithetical to their views, warmly embrace or otherwise find challenging, or a combination thereof, together inevitable reactions that render this film lengths beyond so many contemporary visual essays or simple retellings of events.
I Am Not Your Negro is screening at the Sydney Film Festival
I Am Not Your Negro on Film Fight Club