James Baldwin was a brilliant, brilliant writer, thinker and humanist. If you’ve never read his work, you should take yourself down to your local bookstore and rectify that ASAP. I Am Not Your Negro is not a documentary about him, but it’s entrenched in his prose (I would love to say his voice, but alas, he’s no longer alive to provide it; outside of archival interviews and speeches, Samuel L. Jackson is his stand-in). The work being focused on is an unfinished meditation on the lives and deaths of Baldwin’s activist friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin had to endure the pain of hearing about their murders from unexpected phone calls, and in meditating on their shortened lives, he also meditates on the state of U.S. race relations. An essay film, the filmmakers put Baldwin and his passionate rhetoric front and centre, showing us that Baldwin’s ideas (such as ignorance of black lives being a key reason for white racism) are still as applicable in our time as they were in his. Which is why you should read his work.
As a whole, this is riveting and urgent, and possesses some great editing and montage work. Maybe there are a few too many “driving while filming the skyline” shots here and there, though, and some other reviewers have correctly pointed out that the image-to-text matchups are too on-the-nose sometimes. There’s also a throwaway reference to Baldwin’s queerness (via an FBI report) that seems to be there only because the filmmakers are covering their bases, even though it’s never brought up again. On one hand, yes, a queer man’s text is inherently queer, but I still think that part of his identity is being elided all the same. They could have at least hired someone who sounded more like Baldwin to do the V.O. (I didn’t think Jackson was the best person for the job, frankly).
Shhhhh, it’s still a great film. Hearing Baldwin’s amazing voice in a theatre is worth the price of admission alone. GO AND SEE IT.