Now add to this list the director Raoul Peck’s powerful but imperfect documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, which received critical acclaim and a Best Documentary Oscar nomination before it opened nationwide on February 3. The film draws its inspiration from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, intended to be a personal recollection of his friends, the civil-rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—all of whom were assassinated within five years of each other. About a decade after King’s death, in a letter dated June 30, 1979, Baldwin told his literary agent that he had started sketching out a new book in which he wanted the lives of these extraordinary men “to bang against and reveal one another as they did in life.” Baldwin made little progress on the project, however, and left behind only 30 pages by the time he died in 1987.
I Am Not Your Negro’s narrative voice comes from this unfinished manuscript, in addition to Baldwin’s published works and various television appearances. Unlike conventional documentaries that cede narrative control to family members, friends, and experts to shed light on the film’s subject, Peck’s film relies almost exclusively on Baldwin’s writings, read by Samuel L. Jackson. This ingenious move allows viewers to fully appreciate Baldwin’s unmatched eloquence and form a portrait of the artist through his own words, even if the film largely (and somewhat inexplicably) omits a crucial aspect of his work and life: his sexuality.
I Am Not Your Negro begins with the author’s return to the U.S. in 1957 after living in France for almost a decade—a return prompted by seeing a photograph of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts and the violent white mob that surrounded her as she entered and desegregated Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. After seeing that picture, Baldwin explained, “I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.” I Am Not Your Negro chronicles Baldwin’s life through the civil-rights movement, focusing on his personal relationship to Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin.
Repeatedly, the documentary demonstrates Baldwin’s unique ability to expose the ways anti-black sentiment constituted not only American social and political life but also its cultural imagination. Baldwin was an avid moviegoer and wrote about a number of films in his 1976 book The Devil Finds Work, writings that are brought to life in the documentary. I Am Not Your Negro uses choice scenes from various films—Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Imitation of Life (1934), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), among others—to show how Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of black menace and subservience as foils for white purity and innocence. In a reflexive move, then, Peck’s film also becomes a commentary on a U.S. movie industry that was bent on reifying racial stereotypes and on perpetuating a fiction of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness.