You’d never know it was Samuel L Jackson reading the words from activist and writer James Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House, in the new documentary I Am Not Your Negro, but it mostly works. The downside, of course, is that Baldwin’s emphatic and lilting voice, so brilliantly strong and effortlessly convincing, doesn’t take center stage. Still, Jackson’s reserved cadence conveys the importance of the man (as well as his observations on explosive race relations) who, during the 1960s after years living in Paris, returned to America to fight the good fight alongside his friends and fellow crusaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. How inexplicably awful it must have been to watch as your friends, your loved ones, your very people were killed as they pursued simple rights that ought to be extended to all humans. As we know, these particular men never did make it to the mountaintop, but their contributions—not to mention Baldwin’s, offered through literature—were obviously vital.
With the text of Remember This House as narration, director Raoul Peck weaves footage from then and now deftly throughout the film, reminding us of the brutality black people have faced throughout all of recorded history, even more unforgivable now. In the span of mere minutes, we see the bodies of 60s-era leaders and snapshots of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and other modern-day victims of racist oppression. This is painfully difficult to watch, yet riveting, especially within the juxtaposition of Baldwin's gorgeous prose and ugly images of Klansmen, the violent police and the everyday racists.
These days they're growing bold once more, and though I Am Not Your Negro remains timeless in its message, it is particularly needed right now. Take your children or your students; take yourselves for a refresher course in the tragic absurdity of such racially charged hatred. Prepare to be blown away.
+ Timely and important
- One weird, unnecessary moment of CGI
I Am Not Your Negro Directed by Peck CCA Cinematheque, Violet Crown PG-13, 95 min.