Movie Review: A documentary lets James Baldwin remind us “I Am Not Your Negro”

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Few have articulated America’s ongoing struggles with race better than the African-American writer and social critic James Baldwin.

“We carry our history with us,” he said. He wanted to make certain we understood that.

A gay man, he fled the racism of a country that would not accept him, much less nurture his talents and allow him to flower. But he came back from self-imposed exile in France for long stretches during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement to make the intellectual case for equal rights in debates, in essays and magazine articles and in long, thoughtful TV interviews back when TV did long, thoughtful intellectual interviews.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a filmed attempt to complete his last, long-contemplated but never finished project. “Remember This House” was to be his researched and annotated memoir of three Civil Rights leaders martyred by the cause.

Raoul Peck’s film uses Baldwin’s many TV appearances — most famously on “The Dick Cavett Show” — and his letters to his agent, Jay Acton, letters voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, which outlined the parameters of the project and Baldwin’s memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Megdar Evers.

In those letters, Baldwin described the photo that so moved him that he had to return to America to weigh in on the great issue of our times. It was a news image of Dorothy Counts, the gutsy and assailed young black woman who integrated Charlotte, N.C.’s public schools. Her courage reminded Baldwin that he “missed the life that nourished me,” awful as it sometimes was, that he needed to reconnect with African America and African Americans, who possessed “that style like no other people in the world.”

Peck uses grim images from the era — white rioters attacking black protesters at lunch counters or in voting rights marches — as well as footage of police beatings, then and now, murdered kids, from the 1950s through Trayvon Martin on up to today — to underscore Baldwin’s incisive arguments about the disconnect between what Black America experienced and what White America wanted to see.

“White Americans’ evaluations of these matters are laughable,” he intones over the whitewashed TV and film images of “The fabulous ’50s.” He bites off lines about the violence of “the vast, unthinking, heedless and cruel white majority” as images of recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri plays out on screen.

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Images from way back when remind us that swastikas and Confederate flags have long been a part of the iconography of American racists.

In film chapters with titles such as “Paying My Dues” and “Purity,” Baldwin recalls his own journey, from exile to involvement.

Baldwin, in his letters, sets up the conflict between non-violent Martin Luther King, Jr. and “any means necessary” militant Malcolm X, men he saw “being driven closer and closer together” over the years he knew them until, by the time each was murdered, their positions on the “movement” were mirror images.

Peck’s brilliant and timely film ranges from “the famed Bobby Kennedy meeting” Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansbury (“A Raisin in the Sun”) had with the former attorney general, to images of white people “apologizing” for America’s history of racism, white people who include Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

But best of all is the man who stands front and center, thinking, smoking and expounding, off-the-cuff, about a subject he spent his career and life mulling over, fuming over and struggling to understand in depth. At a time when intellectualism is once again under assault in America, it’s worth remembering that we once produced giants like James Baldwin, and had the good sense to honor and embrace them. Eventually.

3half-star
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity

Cast: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the voice of Samuel L. Jackson

Credits:Directed by Raoul Peck, written by James Baldwin. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:32

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