James Baldwin (1924-1987) was at one time considered a foremost African-American writer and thinker about black America and white racism. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has made an illuminating documentary about Baldwin, and the viewer can find plenty in the film not only related to Baldwin’s era but enabling one to measure where the United States has traveled since then on those issues.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is not a Baldwin biography, although we do learn much about him. It mainly reflects his work, his thoughts and the turbulent time in which he lived.
We see clips of Baldwin on television and we hear his written words spoken eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson. Baldwin never got to finish a book he was writing about Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, all whom he knew. But Jackson reads feelingly from the existing manuscript.
We see a variety of clips of what was going on during Baldwin’s time. The film also deals with his firmly stated thoughts, a barometer of what people were grappling with. The film offers this generation a sense of what Baldwin was about, including how he lived abroad, and the international perspective that he acquired.
Baldwin’s attitude about race indicates pessimism about the state of affairs during his lifetime and for the future as well. His major contribution, of course, was achieving success as a noted literary figure. And on that basis, this documentary is extremely important for what it has to reveal about his ideas and his art and the sense it provides of his personality. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed December 9, 2016.