There's something undeniably confrontational about director Raoul Peck's Academy Award-nominated documentary. The title—I Am Not Your Negro—splattered across the film's poster in bold white letters feels at once like a lecture and a provocation, and it's aimed directly at us. If you're anything like me, 2016 has left you beaten and tired. Come February, we're fatigued by bad vibes and hardly in the mood to be scolded. I mention this at the start because I want you to power through that feeling, lest you miss out on this late addition to my list of 2016's very best films.
Legendary American author James Baldwin has the main writing credit for the film, which initially struck me as bizarre, since he's been dead since 1987, and he's not Tupac—I mean, this isn't some lost screenplay unearthed from the vaults. In fact, the film's narration is drawn from a proposal for an unfinished book, Remember This House, along with archived conversations with Baldwin, images from the civil rights movement and—of particular interest to me—racially charged clips from American cinema that influenced and informed Baldwin's worldview. Layered over these images, Baldwin's prose feels more meditative and poetic than factual. Samuel L. Jackson provides the narration, but you wouldn't know that if you weren't told. Jackson's voiceover is a perfect match for Baldwin's actual speech as captured in the film's archival clips—it's an invisible, flawless and mesmerizing performance.
Baldwin intended his book to explore his relationship with three major figures in the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., each of whom was assassinated in the 1960s. Keep those assassinations in mind when you consider a conversation in the film between Baldwin and an old white scholar on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973. The scholar tells Baldwin that he's too fixated on race, that black people have accomplished a lot since slavery and there are more significant ways to categorize people. It's the same kind of arguments made by proponents of "All Lives Matter" today, and just as wrongheaded. Baldwin reminds him, with enviable eloquence and grace, that when his very life as a black man is threatened daily because of the color of his skin, we don't get to point to a few people of color in politics and professional sports as a justification to brush off racism.
Some of the film's most powerful and uncomfortable moments come from images of white people in the 1950s unashamedly rallying against desegregation and other civil rights issues. These aren't the protests of some fringe white supremacists rallying around their right to paint a swastika on a birthday cake. They are our parents and grandparents, fighting a painfully mainstream cause under the cloak of Christian values. It's more than humiliating to witness—and it's still happening.
I Am Not Your Negro is a rare and special film that evokes Baldwin's work at a pivotal time, for a generation that may have otherwise overlooked it. We are forced to confront some unpleasant truths about the shameful history of race relations in American history, sure. But more than that, I left the theater cocooned in a feeling of invigoration and warmth that can only come from great art.
I Am Not Your Negro opens at the Roxy Fri., Feb. 24.