I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck brings James Baldwin’s powerful words to the screen
How do you adapt a piece of highly literary, personal and historical non-fiction work into a compelling piece of cinema? Moreover, how do you do it when the work in question doesn’t exist beyond its first 30 pages? This is the task which Raoul Peck took up when he bought the rights to James Baldwin’s uncompleted manuscript Remember This House and looked to finish what he started in a different medium, in a new millennium.
The short answer is, he succeeds completely.
One of the keys to his success is the decision to keep Baldwin himself at the centre of the film: like Wolfe, Didion or Hunter Thompson, Baldwin’s writing was always essentially personal, playing the double role of both actor and observer in whatever story he told. Peck translates this quality into film by using only Baldwin’s words (read by a restrained and sonorous Samuel L Jackson) as the film’s narration along with footage of the author himself speaking in interviews and lectures. Wielding language like a precise and delicate instrument, Baldwin’s words slice intricately through race, oppression and ignorance with clinical elegance and without a single unnecessary flourish – if the film were nothing but a supercut of his televised appearances, it would still be something to behold.
Having re-located Baldwin’s project to the world of cinema, Peck takes full advantage of the medium by layering the author’s words on top of a century of American images. Drawn from movies, adverts, news broadcasts, reality TV and Malickian shots of the land itself enduring quietly through decades of turmoil, he places the reality of America alongside its fictional representations, and reveals the gap between them and in which the truth might lie.
I Am Not Your Negro screened at Glasgow Film Festival