An Eternal History
In his documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), director Raoul Peck examines the American racial divide through the guiding rhetoric of Remember This House, an unfinished book by African American civil rights activist James Baldwin. The writer’s personal reflections — narrated in the deep, melodic voice of Samuel Jackson — inform a compilation of other media clips: past and present footage of police brutality, various movie scenes with racial commentary, and in-person appearances by Baldwin himself. The result: a poignant, galvanizing film essay that transcends historical boundaries.
In fact, Baldwin himself embodies a certain eternality. When he explains, in the opening scene, the “journey [he] would have to make” in order to write his final book, the colored footage that accompanies his words is intentionally ambiguous in time period. The slow tracking shot could be from 1979 — the year Baldwin embarked on his commemorative project — or from some present realm, at which point the writer’s spirit takes viewers on a backwards journey.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter: Baldwin’s prophetic visions are so painfully accurate that he may as well have lived forever. From police brutality to the “immaturity” of countless politicians, many of the ills that Baldwin laments have persisted throughout history — a reality that Peck underscores by layering commentary from the deceased writer onto recent television footage. While some shots remain recognizably current (the contours of Donald Trump’s mouth as he utters an insincere apology, for instance), other shots are, once again, ambiguous in their chronology. A black-and-white fight scene between citizens and police, for instance, looks oddly like a civil rights era protest until Peck reveals the site to be Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It seems like a regression in time since the 1950s colored footage preceding it — an artistic trick, executed deftly by Peck, that subverts any confidence in a post-racial America.
It is these nuanced juxtapositions between sound and image — sometimes within a shot, other times between — that turn Peck’s film from a linear history lesson into a multi-layered, immersive experience. And it’s not always pleasant. At one point, Peck overlays the soundtrack of a 1960 US government film — a grossly idealistic promotion of America, highlighting “all of its scenic beauty, all of its heritage and history, all of its limitless opportunities” — onto footage of violent protests happening only several years later. “The story of the negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin later explains. “It is not a pretty story.”
And neither is I Am Not Your Negro — not because of poor filmmaking, but because it presents the viewer with uncomfortable truths. And why are they truths at all? In the film’s chilling final scene, Baldwin prompts the viewer — a presumed white viewer — to explain the existence of racist constructs: “Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place? If you invented [the nigger], you gotta find out why.” Baldwin’s concluding line ensures that the film is more than just a presentation of facts; it’s a call to action.