I Am Not Your Negro is out in theaters now (buy your tickets here). To celebrate, we present a week of articles honoring the film.
In 1979, Harlem-born essayist and novelist James Baldwin sent a letter to his literary agent. He had a blueprint of his memoir, a personal account regarding the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Maneuvering in the climate of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin subscribed to and debated with the activist philosophies of Malcolm X, King, and Evers. Even when he clashed with their ideas, in the end, he was their friend and their collaborator toward a singular vision of racial equality and representation.
Alas, when James Baldwin died in 1987, so did his Remember This House project, stopped sort of 30 pages. Haitian-born Director Raoul Peck would not have Baldwin’s distinct penmanship to finish the manuscript. Whatever Baldwin intended to fill in his blank pages, they are interred in history. But on film, his voice is heeded. Peck does justice for Baldwin’s lost words through the visual medium of the documentary, salvaging the scraps of Baldwin writings, weaving them with the primary sources of the late Baldwin’s interviews, and juxtapositioning them with black-and-white recordings of the Civil Rights Movement and the modern anguished footage of Ferguson.
Peck opted to avoid directly lifting the title “Remember This House” from the incomplete manuscript and searched through 30 potential titles before settling on “I Am Not Your Negro.”
In Peck’s words, “I Am Not Your Negro says, "You cannot define me. I define myself." This was James Baldwin’s attitude his whole life: "I cannot let anyone define who I am, whether I’m gay, whether I’m black, whether I’m a writer, whether I’m this or that. This is my own responsibility—to define myself. And I am not a finished product: I am always in construction because I learn, I have experience, and I see the world.” The point of the documentary is not to copy Baldwin or finish the unfinished, but to wield the inspiration of Baldwin’s forgone project into a potent call for self-examination.
As the voiceover narrator, Samuel J. Jackson serves as the stand-in voice for the late writer. Although Baldwin is no longer alive to offer new pearls of wisdom, loyal Baldwin readers like Peck and Jackson helped translate his words and language for the screen.
With the Black Lives Matter movements alive and rolling, Peck crafts an elaborate mirror of today’s society and interrogates the infernos of our racial battles. We find consolation and celebration in cultural milestones, like the box office popularity of the acclaimed Hidden Figures and a blacker Academy Award season, but the phantom of Baldwin’s words in 2017 reminds us: We still have a long way to go.