THURSDAY 21 FEBRUARY
Doors: 7.30pm Film: 8pm
I Am Not Your Negro (12A)
It is impossible to do justice to this incredibly powerful, poetic, inspiring and deeply relevant, not to say thrilling, documentary in a brief synopsis. James Baldwin was one of the most important, eloquent and sharpest commentators on America, employing beautiful prose to tell his truths.
This film takes his 30 page, unfinished memoir of three assassinated black leaders and spins it out, using archive footage of interviews, newsreels, adverts and film clips, to tell the story and connect it to the present. Brilliantly narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
I Am Not Your Negro review
Raoul Peck’s outstanding, Oscar-nominated documentary is about the African American activist and author James Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time. Peck dramatises Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, his personal memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, murdered by a segregationist in 1963. Baldwin re-emerges as a devastatingly eloquent speaker and public intellectual; a figure who deserves his place alongside Edward Said, Frantz Fanon or Gore Vidal.
Peck puts Samuel L Jackson’s steely narration of Baldwin’s words up against a punchy montage of footage from the Jim Crow to the Ferguson eras, and a fierce soundtrack. (It’s incidentally a great use of Buddy Guy’s Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, which never sounded so angry or political.) There is a marvellous clip of Baldwin speaking at the Cambridge Union Society, and another on the Dick Cavett Show – the host looking sick with nerves, perhaps because he was about to bring on a conservative intellectual for balance, whom Baldwin would politely trounce.
Baldwin has a compelling analysis of a traumatised “mirror stage” of culture that black people went through in 20th-century America. As kids, they would cheer and identify with the white heroes and heroines of Hollywood culture; then they would see themselves in the mirror and realise they were different from the white stars, and in fact more resembled the baddies and “Indians” they’d been booing.
The film shows Baldwin refusing to be drawn into the violence/non-violence difference of opinion between King and Malcolm X that mainstream commentators leaped on, and steadily maintaining his own critique – although I feel that Peck’s juxtaposition of Doris Day’s mooning and crooning with a lynch victim is a flourish that approximates Baldwin’s anger but not his elegance. There is a compelling section on Baldwin’s discussion of dramatist Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun. It is vivid, nutritious film-making.
Director: Raoul Peck
Writer: James Baldwin (writings), Raoul Peck (scenario)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King
Running time: 93 mins.
Rotten Tomatoes - 98%
The Guardian - ★★★★★
Financial Times - ★★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★★
The Times - ★★★★★
Mark Kermode review