Raoul Peck’s gorgeous, forceful polemic “I Am Not Your Negro” refines the art of witness. It is of its moment—the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and effects eddying outward since—but told in this moment, a present tense captured in James Baldwin’s own words, from thirty pages of an incomplete memoir he left behind at the time of his death in 1987. He intended to write a grand, personal history of the origins and legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The language is magnificent. As delivered by Samuel L. Jackson, it’s one of that great voice’s greatest performances. But there’s much more to Peck’s storytelling, including a bracingly kaleidoscopic use of archival footage. “Baldwin gave me a voice, gave me the words, gave me the rhetoric. All I knew through instinct or through experience, Baldwin gave it a name and a shape,” Peck writes in his director’s statement. “I had all the intellectual weapons I needed. For sure, we will have strong winds against us. The present time of discord and confusion is an unavoidable element. I am not naive to think that the road ahead will be easy or that the attacks will not be at time vicious. My commitment to make sure that this film will not be buried or sidelined is uncompromising. We are in it for the long run. Whatever time and effort it takes.” 93m. (Ray Pride)
“I Am Not Your Negro” opens Friday, February 3 at ArcLight, ICON and River East.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.