Sometimes we get the movies we want, sometimes we get the ones we need, and once in a great while we get one that we didn’t know we wanted or needed, but that arrives by way of karmic necessity: a stinging rebuke, searing provocation and soothing balm all in one.
The cinematic miracle in question is “I Am Not Your Negro,” an elegant, emotionally devastating film by Raoul Peck about James Baldwin. This isn’t a soup-to-nuts biographical documentary, although a comprehensive story of Baldwin’s life would be welcome indeed. Instead, Peck has used an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin not just as a way to explore the evolving psyche of one of America’s preeminent mid-20th-century men of letters, but also as a springboard to explore how racism, identity, history and collective denial and shame have conspired to forge a dramatically bifurcated American culture.
In 1979 Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent proposing a book called “Remember This House,” about his relationships with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The letter was a brilliant essay in itself, limning Baldwin’s “divided state of mind” when it came to the United States — at this point he was living in the South of France — the tidal pull of home and family, the search for his place within the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s and his sense of betrayal when even the most well-meaning white people were so rarely able to look squarely at the violence done in the name of racial supremacy. (At one point, Baldwin describes whites as “moral monsters” for their inability to grapple with the murderous effects of slavery, segregation and unacknowledged privilege.)
The lens through which Baldwin’s manuscript examines these themes is the murders of Evers, King and Malcolm, but he widens his gaze to take in American popular culture as well, from the westerns he eagerly watched as a child to such liberal parables as “In the Heat of the Night,” with its narrative of reassurance toward whites and sublimation of African American rage. Read with sensitivity and subtlety by Samuel L. Jackson, Baldwin’s book — only 30 pages of which were completed by the time he died, in 1987 — bristles with the laserlike anger and long-held sense of grievance that actors like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were forced to suppress on-screen, lest they offend their white fans’ sense of innocence.
Punctuating Baldwin’s own words with his incendiary appearances on talk shows and speaking daises, Peck creates a riveting portrait of a keen intelligence animated by a fearless spirit and a grasp of extemporaneous speech at its most musically, meaningfully Shakespearean. Only someone of Baldwin’s towering erudition could interweave history, economics, politics, psychology, personal memoir and cultural critique with the kind of off-handed, often witty simplicity that made him a great author and a bona fide celebrity.
As gratifying as “I Am Not Your Negro” is as a chance to bear witness to one of the last great intellectuals, Peck does the material one better, illustrating Baldwin’s writings and speeches, not only with moving archival images, but also modern-day footage from Ferguson, Mo., and the Black Lives Matter movement. The result is a brilliant piece of filmic writing, one that bursts with fierce urgency, not just for the long-unresolved history it seeks to confront, but also in its attempt to understand what is happening here, right now.
Of course, the past is never past, especially when it’s systematically avoided by those for whom honest reckoning entails existential threat. That same idea has also been explored and advanced by Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America,” both of which, like “I Am Not Your Negro,” are nominated for Academy Awards this year. See them all. And start with this one, if only for the enduring power of Baldwin’s voice, echoing as if from an implacable angel that, if we’re lucky, we’ll always have on our shoulders.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violent images, mature thematic material, strong language and brief nudity. 93 minutes.