Owen Gleiberman (Variety) reviews Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, calling it a “transcendent documentary,” a “kaleidoscopic journey through the life and mind of James Baldwin, whose voice speaks even more powerfully today than it did 50 years ago.” Here are excerpts; please, read the full review here, or in the link below.
Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is the rare movie that might be called a spiritual documentary. It’s a meditation on the prophetic brilliance and the very being of James Baldwin, the African-American writer who was more than a “great thinker” on race — he was the prose-poet of our injustice and inhumanity (and our humanity, too). He saw more than anyone, and he wrote it all down, in essays and novels and plays and poems that were so far ahead of where his society was at that it may only be now, 40 or 50 years later, when he can truly be heard. The times have caught up with his scalding eloquence.
In the early moments of “I Am Not Your Negro,” there’s an amazing clip of Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show.” We think of Cavett as the puckish, enlightened voice of liberal reason, but this clip is from 1968 (the first year he was on), when he was a little more stodgy and reserved, and it’s a shock to hear him ask Baldwin a pointed question as to whether he’s feeling hopeful about “the Negro.” The subtext of the question is a rather imperious, “You should be feeling hopeful.” But the real shock is the way that Cavett throws the word “Negro” around. No, it wasn’t the N-word — but it was the other N-word, not quite as ugly but nearly as dehumanizing. (It was the N-word for polite liberals.) A year or two year later, when “black” came into vogue, it had a liberating effect: You were black or you were white, but a new equivalence was built into that language. Yet to be “a Negro” was to be…a thing. An object. It was a despicable word. And for a few moments, it makes Cavett — channeling the racism of his time — sound like someone who was overseeing a plantation.
What is Baldwin’s response? He says that no, he isn’t feeling overly optimistic about the future of the race question. His word for that situation is that it might be “hopeless.” That’s not something you’re allowed to say on a talk show — not in the late ’60s, and not now, either. The remark hangs in the air like a cloud of toxic fume. Baldwin’s eyes glower with a raging sadness that’s too profound to speak its name. At the risk of sounding like, I don’t know…Dick Cavett, I’ll confess that I watched that moment and thought. “Man, that is awfully pessimistic.” I questioned what Baldwin was saying, and I think a lot of other people will too. Yet by the time “I Am Not Your Negro” is over, you understand exactly what he’s saying, and it’s not nearly as dismissive as it sounds. He is not hopeless about “the Negro.” He is, potentially, hopeless about all of us. But only because the hope buried in his heart burns so brightly.
James Baldwin is a towering figure who deserves a great biographical documentary. “I Am Not Your Negro” doesn’t pretend to be that film. Watching it, you discover a great deal about Baldwin, but you won’t learn when he was born (in 1924) or when he died (in 1987). You won’t learn about the contours of his literary career or how, exactly, he blossomed into someone who was ubiquitous on television. (You might, however, shed a tear for the lost age when literary figures got asked to be on talk shows.) You’ll see a bit about his fame and the celebrated figures he was close to, but you’ll learn only sketchy things about his self-imposed exile to Europe. Blink and you’ll miss the film’s one and only reference to his sexuality — an FBI report, instigated (of course) by the paranoid closeted racist J. Edgar Hoover, that warns that Baldwin is “dangerous” and says that he’s suspected of being a homosexual.
Yet if you watch “I Am Not Your Negro,” you’ll spend a kaleidoscopic and transporting 90 minutes living inside James Baldwin’s mind, coming thrillingly close to his existential perception of the hidden meaning of race in America. Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born filmmaker who made the superb perils-of-colonialism drama “Lumumba” (2000), has directed “I Am Not Your Negro” as a hypnotic collage — of public appearances and TV shows (the “Dick Cavett” drama lightens up a bit and turns into a kind of running serial), rare glimpses of the Civil Rights era and its tumultuous aftermath, and clips of the Hollywood movies that helped to shape Baldwin’s imagination. It’s all held together by the incantatory flow of Baldwin’s words, culled from many different manuscripts, including the magnum opus about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — all friends of his who were gunned down — that Baldwin had just begun to work on and had finished 30 pages of when he died. The words are all read by Samuel L. Jackson, and his reading is uncanny, because though he doesn’t sound precisely like Baldwin, his deep-voiced, melodious directness — the deliberate way that he seizes the meaning of each word — coaxes out the totemic force of Baldwin’s thoughts. [. . .]