Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary examines race in America through the eyes of acclaimed writer James Baldwin.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced,” wrote the late James Baldwin. The work of acclaimed American writer, poet and social critic is put at the center of I Am Not Your Negro (2017), a documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished book manuscript Remember This House, which reflects on race in America by tracing the lives and assassinations of his three friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Baldwin only finished 30 pages of the project by the time he died in 1987, his words still resonate deeply.
An avid reader of Baldwin since his teenage years, Haitian director Raoul Peck weaves the narration of the author’s unfinished book, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, with clips of old public appearances and raw footage of police violence against black people in the ‘60s juxtaposed with similar scenes from today. The powerful and poetic documentary, which took Peck 10 years to make, consists entirely of words by Baldwin himself. The fact that words written 50 years ago still ring true today begs the questions: How much has changed fundamentally? How much of our mythologies have we confronted? How far do we still have to go?
The Oscar-nominated film examines being black in America and fiercely critiques the political and social structures of racism and “the emotional poverty” of the US. “‘White is a metaphor for power’ is the most important phrase in the whole film,” said Peck after the film’s premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, “We don’t have two different histories; they’re the same. Each of us, each nation, each individual, each race and each gender has a role in this history and we need to confront it.”
Photography:David Gahr/Getty Images