By Richard von Busack
Raoul Peck’s tremendous documentary I Am Not Your Negro shows great intelligence and relevance. Rather than a rehash of the 1960s struggle, it’s a demonstration that the struggle never ended. The subject is James Baldwin, and an unfinished manuscript. Baldwin never got farther than 30 pages into his study of three lives in the civil rights movement. All three of the leaders were martyred, and all were under 40 when they were shot: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.
All three were Baldwin’s friends. Which didn’t mean that he agreed with their methods, any more than the three agreed with each other. In this unfinished study, Baldwin wrestled with the question of how to proceed, and—in the sidelines—how to deal with the weakness of liberal backbones.
Making sure he has a well-filled screen, Peck sometimes cuts no-comment landscapes of the South and the iron grids of elevated trains in the cities. We hear a story of how Baldwin observed scraps of a lynched man’s clothes littering tree branches, as we see the Spanish moss dangling in a Southern grove. Numerous film clips illustrate Baldwin’s time, and ours: From Gus Van Sant’s Elephant to the silent version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In its bricolage about an important writer and his times, I Am Not Your Negro is sometimes a movie about movies, about how the glow of soft-focus Technicolor helped whites to hide their eyes. Baldwin scripted what he hoped would be a Billy Dee Williams-starring version of the life of Malcolm X. Thus, as he writes, Baldwin got the news of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. by telephone at the side of a Palm Springs swimming pool.
Peck’s smooth time shifts contrast 1960s beatings on the protest line to the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. Black martyrs are juxtaposed with photos of dead kids killed by incompetent or malicious cops. A few facts turn up missing, probably because of the muscular brevity of Peck’s film. The film is an education based on the experiences of a man who learned the hard way. As Baldwin said, speaking to whites on the behalf of black people everywhere: “I know more about you than you know about me.”