May I start this movie review by recommending a book? In 1998, the Library of America published “James Baldwin: Collected Essays,” a volume that is as critical to understanding this country as any founding document. Edited by Toni Morrison and kept in perpetual print by an anonymous benefactor, the book compiles all of Baldwin’s nonfiction writing, among them his first essay collection, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955); the indispensable “The Fire Next Time” (1963); and “The Devil Finds Work” (1976), in which Baldwin, a committed and lifelong movie lover, looks at America’s legacy of racism through the shadows it has cast on the screen.
Baldwin died in 1987, and many have carried his legacy forward, the most recent being Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose debt to the older writer is clear and acknowledged. What Raoul Peck’s galvanizing, recently Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” achieves is to bring Baldwin’s voice back to the forefront, and not just the voice of the prose but the voice of the man: calm, lucid, sorrowful, furious. Whether the film serves as an introduction or a reacquaintance, it prompts one to consider how deeply missed that voice is today and how profoundly it speaks to the current moment — indeed, how there may be no moment in American history to which James Baldwin’s voice does not speak.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is built upon Baldwin’s writings, using them to remind us incisively of how little has changed. Peck starts by contemplating a book Baldwin never finished, “Remember This House,” begun in 1979 and intended to commemorate three murdered men the writer knew well: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and civil rights activist Medgar Evers. It’s not clear why the project broke down, but the movie treats the three figures as supporting beams, returning to them again and again while looping out into considerations of history, politics, popular culture, and popular resistance, all refracted through 400 years of American race relations.
The movie reminds us of what made Baldwin so powerful on the page and in person: He told the truth about the consequences of America’s original sin with unblinking, blistering candor, and with a logic of thought and an elegance of affect that made it impossible for a white majority to dismiss what he was saying. Here he is on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1968, patiently explaining to the host that “when any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a black man says the exact same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.” (Cavett brings out a Yale philosophy professor to spar, speciously, with Baldwin; oh, for the high-minded chat shows of yesterday.)
Here Baldwin is at a packed 1963 debate in Cambridge, England, speaking words that are exactly as true today: “It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them, and until the moment comes when we, the American people, are able to accept the fact that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity in which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, [that] I am one of the people who built this country — until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because people who are denied participation in it by their very presence will wreck it. And when that happens, it’s a very grave moment for the West.”
Here are great swaths of Baldwin’s prose, read by Samuel L. Jackson in a vocal impersonation that is actually a rather brilliant piece of acting — he convinces you it’s the writer you’re hearing. “I Am Not Your Negro” loves Hollywood movies as much as Baldwin did, and it knows (as Baldwin did) how critical they are to revealing the lies and unintended truths of a culture’s psychology — the world the movies invent to prevent us from seeing the world in which we live. “The people in general cannot bear very much reality,” is the writer’s dry aside within the film’s dissection of lily-white Hollywood happiness, and Peck uses the archives to show us what Baldwin only illuminated, a clip of Doris Day singing “Should I Surrender” in 1961’s “Lover Come Back” juxtaposed with photos of lynching victims.
Harsh but necessary, as is the footage of police beatings in Birmingham 1963 and Ferguson 2015, remembrances of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin, citizen videos from the past few years. “I Am Not Your Negro” is free form almost to a fault, Peck sometimes illustrating Baldwin’s metaphors with dogged literalness; we don’t need shots of space travel to understand that “white people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars.” But if that’s the price to pay for following this voice and this mind wherever it goes, it’s worth it.
Where it goes, of course, is right up to this very second, and, as Baldwin understood, it affects everyone in this country, even those whose eyes are only opening late in the game. Of those who refuse to see, whether in high office or not, Baldwin once wrote (in 1972’s “No Name in the Street”), “They cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.”
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Directed by Raoul Peck. Written by James Baldwin. Starring James Baldwin, the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 95 minutes. PG-13 (disturbing violent archival and viral video images, thematic material, language, and brief nudity)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.