I Am Not Your Negro is a lesson in duality in both form and function. The film is equal parts a maelstrom of black rage and a sleek, surgical assessment of the American Dream as it pertains to race. James Baldwin was out there in the world letting heads know it wasn’t RuPaul’s best friend race from jump street.
There is a somber brilliance that permeates the experience; brilliance in Baldwin’s competence as a social doctor, diagnosing the illness of the times, somber in that at the film’s end, you relate totally to his vision of the United States of the 1960s – in 2017. Brilliance, in relaying the queerness of Baldwin’s intense and sharp affect; serving face and side-eye alongside inflammatory social critique. Somber, knowing that part of his identity was never openly celebrated.
Samuel L. Jackson’s narration gives the viewer pause, as one hears how his voice lends Baldwin’s words weight. Our familiarity with Jackson is obscured by the subject matter of Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. Jackson doesn’t speak from the “I” at all, he simply reads what Baldwin wrote. He doesn’t even read it ‘muthafuckily’, he just reads what Baldwin wrote.
Raoul Peck’s minimalist visual direction is stunning. I Am Not Your Negro is largely black and white (I see what I did there, and didn’t mean to) with video of Baldwin crossing the country and the world with the ease and unease awarded his unique perspective. Excerpts from the Remember manuscript or the text from an FBI report will peck itself onto the screen like a kinetic, live-action typewriter. There is some genius use of old-timey commercials to reveal the passage of time which also serve the viewer as access to the prevailing ideologies that fed into the systemic injustices Baldwin speaks power to. It is beguiling to visually witness the indoctrination of the American public of the 1960s while listening to the anecdotal liberation of that same generation. Peck puts this juxtaposition to effective use.
The duality that lives at the core of I Am Not Your Negro is one of time. The events take place in the past and are felt in the present. His view of the world was ahead of the curve, which gave it the weight of prophecy (James Baldwin is: Nostradamus, in: Nostradamus, Of Harlem!). In the age of the Trump presidency, just the sight of Baldwin’s contempt for business as usual, coupled with his compassion for the people that hated him (lots of X-Men vibes there) presented him (and by extension, we, the viewer) with as close to a solution to our country’s social ills as much then as now. Peck uses Baldwin to tell the audience that we are late to the game; that had we heeded his words when they were fresh out of his mouth we might have avoided the harsh waters of white nationalism we are in now. Duality being what it is, the film affirms that a choice must be made: look your history in the face or be reckoned with. Because God showed Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but the fire next time.