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'I Am Not Your Negro' reminds you James Baldwin is still relevant

A fiery film essay about the legendary writer finds his words speaking to the civil rights era and today.
I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin, center, is the focus of "I Am Not Your Negro," Raoul Peck's look atMagnolia Pictures

‘I Am Not Your Negro’
Director:
Raoul Peck
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

“I Am Not Your Negro” is the movie of the moment. That’s a line you hear a lot these days. It seems every film is colored by post-election anxiety — even “Office Christmas Party,” about revelers trying to drink and drug away their fears of an uncertain future. But if you had to pick a movie that truly speaks forcefully, and at times, directly to what’s presently happening in America, it would have to be a doc that includes someone saying, “I began to suspect white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason.” That’s not a line from a think piece about Trump voters just posted into your Facebook feed. It’s from “The Devil Needs Work,” James Baldwin’s book-length essay, written way back in 1976.

The depressing relevance of Baldwin’s brutally honest, eloquent, at times even witty work is the subject of Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro.” It’s no primer nor a thorough biography, though, of course, Baldwin’s life tended to pour, in huge tidal waves, into his fiction (most famously “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) and essays (like “The Fire Next Time”). His experiences, and those of African-Americans in general, were his favorite subject, and he spent a lifetime trying to get the right people to listen. In the handful of TV appearances peppered throughout Peck’s film, Baldwin is both charmer and rabble-rouser. He doesn’t mince words when he says that to be black in America is to always feel threatened, and how prosperous white culture was built upon a foundation of black misery and murder.

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It’s not narcissism to say such sentiments still carry weight, in an era when the words “black lives matter” inspire defensiveness and hostility amongst large chunks of the populace. Peck’s CV includes films about Karl Marx and the Congo’s short-lived first prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and his latest is both film essay and cinematic time warp. Most of the text comes from “Remember This House,” a never completed essay, read by Samuel L. Jackson in a soft, almost unrecognizable voice. Peck likes to jump around, though, playing Baldwin’s old words over archival footage and new images alike. BLM protestors get in the mix with old, racist advertisements with smiling black servants; civil rights-era police beatdowns exist alongside fresh swastikas atop signs boasting “white power.” Even the past gets remixed: At one point a clip of Doris Day is interrupted by a photo of a lynching.

Sometimes Peck isn’t subtle, nor should he be. Like Baldwin, he means to provoke, if not always in the same way. Baldwin’s touch was gentle even when he was taking no prisoners, and he was serious without being earnest. For the most part, so is “I Am Not Your Negro,” which, like a Baldwin essay, meanders, ever so slightly, while still staying generally on point. It even sometimes wanders away from “Remember This House,” including sections from “The Devil Needs Work” — an essay about movies that allows Peck to put relevant clips onscreen. Jackson-as-Baldwin bemoans the ersatz racial equality in “The Defiant Ones,” teases out the gay subtext between Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night.” When it comes to the sexless interracial couple of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he suggests a sequel, quipping, “The next time the kissing will have to start.”

“I Am Not Your Negro” isn’t comprehensive, as a Baldwin study or as a look at race, leaving huge gaps. They're there, though, for viewers to fill them in themselves — to run out, fired up, and educate themselves further, carry on a fight that has only slightly changed. If it sends you to Baldwin’s books themselves, that’s great, and it’s only the start. The next four to eight years will require a lot of James Baldwin.

"I Am Not Your Negro" opens for a weeklong sneak preview (to qualify for Oscars) in New York City on Dec. 9, at Maysles Cinema, 343 Malcolm X Blvd. It will open theatrically on Feb. 3. For tickets and showtimes, visit the Maysles Cinema site.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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