James Baldwin’s voice – or rather, voices – weave together the sprawling, stirring documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” playing at PMA Films from Friday to Sunday.
Baldwin, the late novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist, is present throughout the film both in person, with appearances culled from various talk shows and speaking engagements, and in the form of narration from an unlikely source. Actor Samuel L. Jackson reads out Baldwin’s writings in an almost unrecognizable, subdued, weary tone, his signature and bankable bombast reined in to an authoritative, arresting cadence. Jackson doesn’t sound like Baldwin so much as he picks up the man’s train of thought, propelling Baldwin’s uniquely personal take on the civil rights movement with an all-too-necessary urgency.
Raoul Peck’s film spins Baldwin’s musical phrases – and Jackson’s very different approximation of the same – into a mesmerizing whole as “I Am Not Your Negro” traces Baldwin’s lifelong ruminations on race in America through the text of his aborted nonfiction book, “Remember This House.”
Here’s the “I Am Not Your Negro” trailer
Intended as a biography of Baldwin’s friends, the murdered civil rights pioneers Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the unfinished manuscript forms the backbone of a tight yet discursive personal story with anecdotes from Baldwin’s eventful life interspersed with speeches and archival footage from the civil rights movement, all woven together by the unseen Jackson’s unobtrusive embodiment of the author.
From its title to Baldwin’s uncompromising appearances on Dick Cavett’s talk show among other places and a famous speech at Cambridge University, “I Am Not Your Negro” isn’t content – as Baldwin never was – to look at the plight of black Americans as a settled question. Indeed, throughout the film, Baldwin’s impassioned prose probes feelingly and unrelentingly at the roots of white America’s ingrained racism.
All such documentaries (and obligatory Black History Month news pieces) seem to play the same clips – the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, the March on Washington, the first black children walking to their court-integrated schools. But Peck lingers on the white onlookers and protesters. Signs promoting racism and segregation, people proclaiming it God’s will that the races be separate, swastikas and beatings, and those leering at lynched black men and women. Peck holds on those white faces while Baldwin’s voices speak of their reasons with poetic, simmering anger. It’s unflinching, and uninterested in placating white audiences.
Baldwin’s reminiscences make frequent references to popular films — mirrors of the culture and, in Baldwin’s eyes, propagators of the harmful, divisive myths that still separate us today. A quote about popular culture being a narcotic and Americans’ inability to separate entertainment from real life might sound glib – if Peck’s choice of braying reality show debasement weren’t informed by the knowledge that white America just elected a glib, racially divisive reality show star as president.
Baldwin is a great writer whose narrative voice unspools phrases and ideas that play in the mind like somber but lovely music. But Baldwin’s eloquence comes through like exhausted but angry prophecy the more that Peck incorporates present-day footage of Black Lives Matter protesters confronted by militarized police and caught-on-video police brutality. There’s a mournful tone to the film, even as Baldwin asserts at one point that he cannot help but be hopeful. One memorable statement is worth quoting at length:
“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. … It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” asserts that those words, spoken some 50 years ago by a black man worn down and clear-eyed about the state of race relations in America, are as true now as then. Baldwin’s take is that America should build upon the hard-won knowledge of a history’s worth of failures and injustices and, yes, successes, in order to move forward into something like understanding. His optimism was wary, and weary, then. Looking around, it would only be more so today. This is a remarkable, challenging documentary that provides no easy answers and only a thorny, difficult road map forward.
“I Am Not Your Negro” plays at the Portland Museum of Art’s PMA Films, 7 Congress Square, Portland, (portlandmuseum.org/events/movies) at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday and 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, and will be back for a return engagement April 7 to 9, thanks to popular demand. Tickets are reportedly going fast, so viewers are advised to purchase them in advance. The film is rated PG-13 and runs a brisk 93 minutes.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Thursday: “Deconstructing The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper.’” You know what’s better than listening to one of the greatest albums of all time? Watching composer, musician and Beatles expert Scott Freiman explain why it’s so great!
Friday: “Community Conservation: Finding the Balance Between Nature and Culture.” Maine-made documentary sees those involved with four state land trusts explaining their various approaches to sustainable environmental policy, hunting, fishing, tourism and industry.