Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is a beautiful grenade

James Baldwin at his home in Saint Paul de Vence, South of France in September 1985. (Photo: Getty Images)
James Baldwin at his home in Saint Paul de Vence, South of France in September 1985. (Photo: Getty Images)

City Press film review: I Am Not Your Negro

Johannesburg - There are many extraordinary things about Haitian film maker Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. The riveting archive material drawn from a range of sources from pop culture to police footage, beautifully edited and juxtaposed in bursts of colour against grainy black and white; the space for silence and contemplation; the genius narration of Samuel L Jackson channelling the gravelly, weary drawl of the revolutionary writer James Baldwin; the fact that this film exists at all.

It is the political activist in Peck that picks up Baldwin’s story and hurls it like a hand grenade at the enemy: Systemic white racism.

“To discover the country which is your birthplace, to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any space for you?” asks Baldwin in a film that is told almost entirely from his own writing, through his own eyes – an approach that also powerfully shaped recent biopic doccies like What Happened, Miss Simone? and Amy.

In documenting the civil rights movement, I Am Not Your Negro deftly unveils the evils of racist America and makes it patently clear why Donald Trump is a continuum of right wing oppression, not an aberration.

It holds up Baldwin’s friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr as the narrative is punctuated by the devastation of their eventual assassinations.

It’s a perfectly made film, for the film it is, but after it’s finished you realise there is plenty of space for other films on Baldwin.

Perhaps it’s because I had been so eagerly anticipating a film on Baldwin – in fact, ever since the day, as a gay teenager in Pretoria, I picked up Giovanni’s Room and was no longer so alone – I was left disappointed by the treatment of his intersectional struggle as a gay man, which is inseparable from his struggle as a black man.

Yet only once is his queerness, which shaped his politics, mentioned in I Am Not Your Negro, shown on screen in a 1966 FBI memo.

And I’m not sure if it’s even my place to voice this, but, by the end, the film on the man whose pen so masterfully etched the reality of black pain, felt like it was speaking more to a white audience.