“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
It’s hard to do James Baldwin justice in anyone else’s words. The man, the myth, the legend — so many words ring truer around his name. “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary framed around and based entirely in Baldwin’s own words, manages to adapt the work better than most mainstream movies.
Director Raoul Peck seems tasked with the impossible: adapt Baldwin’s final, unfinished novel (titled “Remember This House”) into a cohesive documentary. The book was to focus on America — as a country, an institution, a walking-ism — through the lives of three of Baldwin’s murdered friends. He wanted the three lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X to bang against each other, as they so did, but to also brush up against what it means to be black in America.
The result is as powerful as it is wide-reaching. His scope is vast but his prose is damning; as he turns an eye from slavery as an economy to a leisurely afternoon horrendously interrupted by the death of his friend, his words move like water soothing over a listener effortlessly.
Though Peck’s visual style isn’t quite as imaginative (what could be?) his framing rises to the challenge of Baldwin’s work, even managing some truly exceptional moments here and there. As Baldwin discusses how keen white America is to see the rioting in Birmingham as alien as martian soil, Peck matches Baldwin’s prose with a sweeping shot of terrain on Mars. The shot is backed only with Baldwin’s words — that there’s little difference between the streets of Birmingham and the streets of Los Angeles to the black community — and a haunting emptiness. Eventually as protest sounds creep into the background, it’s perhaps some of the most striking visualization that white and black Americans occupy separate worlds on the same “streets of the free and the brave.”
For the most part, though, Peck sticks to a collage of visuals and voiceover, summoning up photos from the archives for key players, and clips of old movies for key moments of cultural influence in Baldwin’s life. Though the legendary author is ultimately responsible for drawing the framework for the pop culture touchstones that affected him (John Wayne, a janitor in “They Won’t Forget,” or close friend Lorraine Hansberry), Peck does some nice work illustrating crucial scenes and juxtapositions implied by Baldwin’s writing but that could never be seen as a book. As Baldwin narrates that the Doris Day’s “grotesque innocence” has never been forced to reconcile with the everyday challenges of black America, Peck cuts between Day — rosy cheeked and hopeful as ever — and pictures of lynchings.
Brutal, to be sure. Effective, even more certainly. Baldwin’s words land only in the way that poetry speaking truth to power and circumstance. Though his manuscript was short, “I Am Not Your Negro” accomplishes so much with too few of Baldwin’s prolific words. Even if all it does is spread the ashes of “Remember This House” on the screen, it’s a documentary that feels impossibly linked to the cultural zeitgeist it finds itself released into and utterly transcendent of it. No one puts it better than Baldwin when he says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” is currently playing at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (805 E. Pine St.)