It is abundantly clear now more than ever that we are not living in a 'Post-Racial America'.
Splintering racial divisiveness echoes from our nation’s highest office. That's the bad news. The good news is that the incredibly gifted Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has made a galvanizing call to action in his new documentary on James Baldwin unashamedly titled, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. (The film is currently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.)
James Baldwin was inextricably linked to the seminal historical figures Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Each of them, titans in their own right, tragically fell victim to the fatal sting of assassination.
Their deaths touched Baldwin to his core; they were his close friends, mentors and fellow comrades in the struggle for equal rights. He knew he could no longer be a spectator; it was now time for him to fully engage. In doing so, he started down the road to complete the most arduous literary work of his life.
This moment of clarity is where the film begins.
There are no interviews from distinguished political and historical authorities. No superficial social commentary by celebrities. No random eyewitnesses to events. We only hear from the prophetic orator, the master storyteller and perhaps the greatest American essayist himself; Baldwin.
Ranging from conflict-laden live television interviews, to revelatory roundtable debates, to the intimate letters of Baldwin to his literary agent explaining his current enmeshed emotions — it is as if he is speaking directly to us, in the urgent present moment.
The film is a dialectic window into duality; the past compared to the present, the white American experience against the Black American experience. Lifted by the timeless, transcendent and tangible resonance of Baldwin’s insights, Mr. Peck creates a film that urges us to further understand the troubling truths of race in America by implementing a device of jarring-juxtaposition.
Mr. Peck expertly deploys this cinematic technique of placing a scene of innocence and beauty against a scene of blatant brutality. The intent is clear; the America as we see it, is not as it actually appears to be.
Peck does not allow the audience to obfuscate out of the difficulty of confronting the racial landscape that Baldwin deconstructs. He offers the audience the most evasive and eluding element of our culture: the truth.
In a touching turn, Samuel L. Jackson lends a personable presence as a narrator to the film, in a performance that supplements and never overshadows the resolve of Baldwin’s indelible words.
In the current cinematic climate of mammoth franchises and reductive remakes, through the searing eloquence of James Baldwin and the acute visual direction of Raoul Peck comes an intelligently crafted and intrepid film that asks us to not be dismayed and discouraged but to have the boldness to live with the audacity of hope.