I Am Not Your Negro explores the work of the late James Baldwin

By Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer

I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on the writings of the late author James Baldwin, has resonated with viewers in the aftermath of a tumultuous election season.

The film is directed and produced by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck and co-produced by Peck’s elder brother, Herbert, and another partner, Remi Grellety.

It is based on published and unpublished writings by Baldwin and covers the history of racial prejudice in America.

It opened to the public on February 3 and grossed $3.5 million in its first three weeks, when it played in only 200 theaters nationwide.

The movie has garnered high praise from critics, and the film has received a 98 percent fresh rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

“From the beginning this was never the goal, but I must say we knew what we had,” Herbert Peck, who works as a staffer at Rutgers University, told NJ.com. “We always felt we had something important.”

Much of the film draws from the unpublished manuscript of Remember This House, a memoir Baldwin planned to write about his friendships with the assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Baldwin stated in a 1979 speech at Berkeley that the civil rights movement was really a “slave rebellion,” and that black Americans were still governed by slave codes. Thus, he insisted, ending discrimination was the responsibility of white Americans.

During a speech before the National Press Club in 1986, nearly a year before his death, he suggested that the country institute “a white history week” to dispel “the myths that white people have about themselves. These myths have to be excavated and only can be excavated by white people.”

“Baldwin was talking about this, writing about this 40, 50 years ago,” Peck said. “Today, in 2017, you feel as if he wrote this stuff this morning. It means on the one hand, what great insight, but also it makes you think about how much we have gone forward as a society. It lets us know we still have some ways to go.”

There are no talking heads in the film, which consists of archival footage of Baldwin interspersed with clips from the civil rights movement and the more recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Actor Samuel L. Jackson speaks Baldwin’s prose whenever there was no recording of Baldwin himself.

“His words are already so powerful and he’s already so descriptive in his language,” Peck said.  “[Raoul] really wanted no filter between the audience and Baldwin.”

The film was nominated for the 2017 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, but lost to O.J.: Made in America, a film about the life and court trials of O.J. Simpson.

But the reception to the film excites Peck, who is planning an outreach effort to bring the film to schools, churches, community centers, boardrooms, and police associations after its theatrical run. It will also air on PBS’s Independent Lens series.

“[The film] is for everyone,” Peck said. “As Baldwin says himself, this is one country. This is one narrative. We need to make sure that we understand it as one narrative. We can’t continue to have parallel stories of people’s experiences in America. It’s all tied to one story.”

Photo Courtesy: Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection


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