A beautiful, haunting portrait of James Baldwin & race in America

Grade: A

Verdict: “I Am Not Your Negro” is great. Period. Everything about it is great. See it.

Raoul Peck has performed a sizable miracle with “I Am Not Your Negro.” He has managed to make a film that both relishes the unshakable voice of James Baldwin, while nevertheless showcasing Peck’s own steady hand and filmmaking prowess. “I Am Not Your Negro” is graceful and to-the-point, flowing effortlessly but never backing off. It is, in a word, great.

For the uninitiated, “I Am Not Your Negro” is based on the writing James Baldwin, a black American intellectual who was writing during the Civil Rights Movement. Though not directly involved in any of the most well-known action of those days– the protests and sit-ins and the like…– he knew both MLK and Malcolm X well, and wrote about the same issues, producing some of beautiful, charged essays, plays and novels.

Everything in this film is based on his writings, especially thirty pages of notes preparing for a book he never wrote, “Remember This House.” It was supposed to weave the history of race in America through the assassinations of MLK, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, and consisted of lots of ruminating about his relationships with these men and about race struggles generally.

Peck stitches these notes together with excerpts from other essays, as well as archival footage of Baldwin giving speeches and interviews. In the process he crafts something of a love poem, giving us a beautiful Baldwin-essence.

This is the triumph of Peck, a long time Baldwin aficionado. He manages to arrange this film out of fragments of Baldwin’s words, choosing just the right images to compliment Baldwin’s voice. Well, it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s voice, but Jackson takes a back seat. Such a back seat, in fact, that I wouldn’t have guessed it was him if I hadn’t seen the credit already. The readings feel straight from the author’s mouth.

Plus Peck carefully negotiates the issue of Then and Now without feeling pushy. We see archival footage of the Civil Rights Era alongside contemporary images of unrest, such as the Ferguson riots, and it never feels forced. The transitions are eerily smooth– naturally, of course, considering where we are in the world today.

Baldwin’s warnings and misgivings are as relevant now as they ever were, and “I Am Not Your Negro” makes that point more powerfully than any recent Civil Rights movie. Really. I feel confident saying that. “Selma”’s good and everything but watch this movie, for real.

It’s not an easy watch. Recognizing the injustices of race in America never feels good (and it shouldn’t, but I take that as a given). But for all the difficulty inherent in facing a film like “I Am Not Your Negro,” there’s just as much beauty. When I was crying watching this, it was as much for its loveliness as its sorrow. This is Baldwin, and for this “I Am Not Your Negro” is one of the best movies of the year.

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