I Am Not Your Negro examines the issue of race in mid-century America, through the life and works of the writer and activist James Baldwin.
Inspired by an unfinished manuscript about Baldwin’s assassinated friends – the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr – Raoul Peck’s documentary collapses the distance between the ‘60s and the present, playing Baldwin’s words over a montage of police violence and black protest that blends landmarks of the civil rights movement with the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Baldwin could not foresee the future – he ridiculed Bobby Kennedy’s suggestion that in 40 years a black man could be president – but many of the problems he identified remain painfully relevant.
I Am Not Your Negro relies on archive interviews with Baldwin rather than the usual procession of talking heads, with passages from his works read with uncommon gentility by Samuel L Jackson. It’s a better history than it is biography, however, hardly mentioning the homosexuality of the man JFK reputedly called “Martin Luther Queen”. In this age of intersectional identities, such an omission seems unforgivable.
But as a portrait of an era, and a focus on an unresolved social issue, I Am Not Your Negro deserves attention.