In the late nineteen seventies, author and playwright James Baldwin began work on a memoir entitled Remember This House. He worked on it fitfully through the 80s and, by the time of his death in 1987, had only amassed some thirty pages. The piece was never published – indeed, the would-be publishers sued Baldwin’s family in order o to get back the advance they’d paid for the work – but, when director Raoul Peck chanced upon the manuscript, he realised that he had the basis for a powerful polemic.
I Am Not Your Negro is the resulting film – an extraordinarily excoriating and affecting documentary that looks at the treatment of black people in America over the centuries, focusing especially on the murders of three of Baldwin’s closest friends – civil activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. Baldwin’s original text is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and there are several filmed appearances of the author himself, an eloquent and erudite speaker, making clear the injustice and infamy handed out to people of colour on an everyday basis. These interviews are interspersed with a profusion of found footage: the homogenised depictions of black people in early Hollywood movies and in the advertising industry through the 50s and 60s; shocking newsreel footage of riots, where black demonstrators are being beaten and brutalised by the police; even hideous period photographs of lynch mobs in the deep South of America posing proudly in front of their victims.
This is by no means comfortable viewing. Indeed, I sat through the film’s duration feeling the oppressive weight of my privilege upon my white shoulders. At times I felt close to tears and I couldn’t help thinking that this film ought to be mandatory viewing for all those white people who complain that the whole race issue is ‘overdone,’ that there are more important issues on which to concentrate. Peck’s film makes a mockery of that claim. It also shows that Baldwin was way ahead of his time, a lone plaintive voice crying out to an indifferent world.
Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to consider his words in all their wisdom. I would urge you to go and see this important documentary. I’ve rarely seen a more affecting piece of cinema.