I AM NOT YOUR NE­GRO

Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JIMI FAMUREWA

DI­REC­TOR Raoul Peck

CAST James Bald­win, Sa­muel L. Jackson

PLOT Be­fore his death in 1987, African-amer­i­can writer James Bald­win was work­ing on an opus. Here, that un­com­pleted book — a bi­og­ra­phy of civil rights ac­tivists Medgar Evers, Mal­colm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — is re­vived with ar­chive footage and an ever-present nar­ra­tor (Jackson).

WHEN YOU THINK of sear­ing ex­am­i­na­tions of race re­la­tions in the US, you pos­si­bly don’t pic­ture the stu­dio lights, pot plants and gen­tle au­di­ence laugh­ter of a 1968 chat show. But that’s how I Am Not Your Ne­gro be­gins, with James Bald­win — tie rak­ishly knot­ted, lit cig­a­rette plum­ing smoke at his side — pa­tiently an­swer­ing a ques­tion from host Dick Cavett that essen­tially amounts to, “What have black peo­ple still got to be an­gry about?”

As a scene, it neatly il­lus­trates one of the more ur­gent truths at the heart of this Os­carnom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary — that racism lurks even amid the most out­wardly po­lite Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions — but it also acts as a per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to Bald­win him­self. The Har­lem­born au­thor spent his life as an ur­bane pub­lic ag­i­ta­tor for so­cial and racial jus­tice. And now, three decades af­ter his death, Bald­win has in­spired (and, tech­ni­cally, scripted) one of the fledg­ling year’s most vi­tal pieces of cinema.

It’s fair to say that this par­tic­u­lar story has taken the scenic route to re­lease. As in­tro­duc­tory on-screen text ex­plains, the ba­sis of the film is an un­com­pleted work Bald­win first be­gan in 1979; an am­bi­tious ac­count of his var­i­ous en­coun­ters with as­sas­si­nated civil right lead­ers Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mal­colm X. At the time of his death, the book was still only 30 pages of notes but, un­de­terred, Haitian di­rec­tor Raoul Peck spent a decade try­ing to fin­ish what Bald­win had started. As ev­ery frame throbs with up-to-the-minute po­lit­i­cal pur­pose, you can’t help but feel that this tale was just wait­ing for his­tory to catch up.

Peck’s mas­ter stroke is that he uses Bald­win’s frame­work of a civil rights bi­og­ra­phy (it­self intended to tell a wider story about the black ex­pe­ri­ence in Amer­ica) to ap­praise the sim­i­lar times we find our­selves in. From the start, shots of Black Lives Mat­ter protests are in­ter­laced with Bald­win’s nar­rated words (spo­ken with som­bre in­ten­sity by a di­alled down Sa­muel L. Jackson) and sick­en­ing scenes of seg­re­ga­tion­ist mobs jeer­ing the first black stu­dents at Deep South schools. When Bald­win, in a 1963 in­ter­view, says, “I am ter­ri­fied at the moral ap­a­thy — the death of the heart — which is hap­pen­ing in my coun­try,” he could just as eas­ily be talk­ing about 2017.

And there’s lib­eral use of other Bald­win es­says, too, which cover every­thing from film anal­y­sis to his ac­count of a no­to­ri­ous meet­ing with Bobby Kennedy. This means that, as well as pay­ing in­ti­mate trib­ute to those three mythic civil rights fig­ures, I Am Not Your Ne­gro also func­tions as a kind of Bald­win memoir (cov­er­ing his 1957 re­turn to the US af­ter a pe­riod of ex­ile in Paris) and a vis­ual pop-cul­ture the­sis. Peck show­cases the ex­haus­tive­ness of his re­search by sprint­ing from be­lief-beg­gar­ing ar­chive ad­verts to Sid­ney Poitier films to chat shows to a brief snip­pet of a cer­tain Don­ald J. Trump and be­yond.

In less ca­pa­ble hands all this might lack co­her­ence. Mostly though, Peck’s shrewd pacing is up to the chal­lenge and the poise of Bald­win’s prose — whether in old clips or Jackson’s mono­logues — holds it all to­gether. Yes, it’s un­re­lent­ing in its anger and there’s noth­ing sub­tle about its polem­i­cal jux­ta­po­si­tions (the grisly im­ages of the fi­nale may be too much for some), but this is an un­flinch­ing doc­u­men­tary that makes a pow­er­ful point about the re­peated mis­takes of the past. VER­DICT Peck’s film may have been an Os­cars brides­maid but it turns Bald­win’s pre­scient words into a stag­ger­ing achieve­ment. It’s an ex­hil­a­rat­ing blast of fo­cused fury.

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