When popular writers die, their unfinished work is often scavenged for publishable material, to historically mixed results. Sometimes the writing at the bottom of the drawer is left there for a reason. I Am Not Your Negro is an unusual example of an incomplete work reaching fullness through transference to a new medium and skillful recontexutalization. When the incomparable James Baldwin died in 1987, he was in the middle of writing Remember This House — another of his lengthy meditations on race in America, this one structured around the lives and deaths of his friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript was given to director Raoul Peck, who has utilized Baldwin’s words as the foundation for a stark, troubling statement film.
The documentary is built with passages from Remember This House and excerpts from Baldwin’s letters to his editor — all read with steady authority by Samuel L. Jackson — plus archival interviews and debates featuring Baldwin, scenes from movies and news footage both historical and contemporary. The author’s remembrances of his friends alternate with his musings on different aspects of American culture and history, the stage on which they acted and were eventually assassinated. Temporal divisions between past and present dissolve. Baldwin, speaking from the 1980s, refers back to classic Hollywood or his childhood, and his thoughts are juxtaposed with news from today. That most of his ideas on police brutality and economic inequality still apply to the situation of people of color today is massively disquieting, to say the least.
The free intermingling between primary and artistic sources with Baldwin’s manuscript makes I Am Not Your Negro a unique blend of social commentary, film criticism and memoir. To Baldwin, there was no distinction between the psychology of mass action and mass entertainment — everything could be traced to shared perception enforced by the culture at large. As he saw it, this was both where American racism came from and how it perpetuated itself, and Peck goes beyond the time of his passing to make the case that this process has only continued unabated. Ezekiel Kweku wrote of viral police brutality videos as the cinema of black death. The intercutting of such videos with everything from slave auction notices to lynching photographs to Hollywood’s historic inhumanity toward the nonwhite suggests that all of American culture, implicitly or explicitly, is in fact about black death, or at least white assurance.
A confrontation over a protest in Ferguson in 2014 might as well be Watts in 1965. The faces of black people killed by police, well-familiar to the audience thanks to social media and activists’ insistence that we not forget them, are presented as the modern iterations of the likes of Evers, X and King. I Am Not Your Negro gives Baldwin’s trenchant, brilliant prose — ever timely both because he was a genius and because America is too slow to change on these matters — its due, keeping his spirit in times when it’s needed badly.