The screenwriting credit for I Am Not Your Negro is James Baldwin. This is quite the claim for director Raoul Peck to make, considering that he made this movie about Baldwin thirty years after the great writer’s death. Peck took words that Baldwin wrote, and clips of words he spoke, and wove a narrative about race in America, and what the future of the country might be on that front. I started watching this movie thinking it was a biopic on Baldwin, and found that instead it was a biopic on America.
In speeches he gave at Cambridge and in France, in essays he published and personal letters he wrote to friends, Baldwin patiently explained just how deep the wounds of slavery are in the US, and how impossible it is to move forward on issues of true equality until those wounds are addressed.
One of the most striking moments in the film is when Baldwin is on a talk show and an old white man joins him onstage. He’s a professor of philosophy, and he comes out to decry the identity politics that he sees as becoming increasingly popular — why must we be so hung up on these issues of identity? Baldwin’s reply, that when your identity makes you a target for very real violence, that discussing political issues is always tinged with the personal because of what might happen to you personally, is piercing. It’s the answer to every #AllLivesMatter complaint.
Peck doesn’t shy from making explicit connections between the problems of Baldwin’s time and the problems of our time — because they’re the same problems, ones we as a nation refuse to face head-on. As Samuel L. Jackson reads words from Baldwin’s letters and essays, videos from the march on Selma and the protests in Ferguson play, and photos of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin flash on the screen.
The title of the film is a slight alteration of a James Baldwin quote from near the end of the film. As with so much of what he said and wrote, it’s a brilliant, difficult statement that we have to grapple with urgently. “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n***er in the first place, because I’m not a n***er,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a n***er, it means you need it… If I’m not a n***er and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”