James Baldwin left a rich literary history, producing such works as “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” His examinations of race, sexuality and class were powerful, sparked by his own fights during the mid-20th century both for being black and gay.
Baldwin appeared to be on the verge of writing another masterful examination of these topics when in 1979, he told his literary agent that his next book, “Remember This House,” would his personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.
Baldwin had written only 30 pages of his manuscript by the time of his death in 1987.
Documentary maker Raoul Peck used those few pages to create an Oscar-nominated film that offers a look at what the filmmaker believes Baldwin’s book would have been. “I Am Not Your Negro” mixes Baldwin’s words with news photos and film footage to offer a complete look at the short – but influential – lives of the three men.
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Although part of the production is from the mind of Peck, the entire movie maintains the passion for social change that can be found in Baldwin’s work. This is made even clearer through the use of footage of Baldwin from TV appearances where he so eloquently strives to educate a world that embraces racial ignorance with so much vigor.
Peck is able to add contemporary accent marks to Baldwin’s points by putting together footage from the past and present, such as the sequence featuring the recent racial explosions in Ferguson, Mo., mixed with scenes of marches in the South in the 1960s.
Had Baldwin finished his book and Peck adhered to it honestly, then there would not have been any room for putting the writer’s point in contemporary context. Peck has created a work that’s a reminder that no matter how society believes it has changed when it comes to race relations, the more distant we remain from an accepting world.
Whether it’s Baldwin speaking or the readings done by Samuel L. Jackson, “I Am Not Your Negro” pulls no punches. It’s painful for a society that declares itself to be educated to be forced to look at how ignorant it has been and remains. Peck’s work with Baldwin, despite being separated by time and death, ends up as a powerful spotlight shining how a lack of acceptance remains a plague on the world.
A movie like “Hidden Figures” offers a less direct message about how much the world has lost because of bigotry. “I Am Not Your Negro” is far more direct and that will make it less palatable for some. But sometimes a direct approach is more effective.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is this month’s presentation by Fresno Filmworks. There will be screenings at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 10, at the Tower Theatre, 815 E. Olive Ave.