By the middle of the twentieth century, Santayana's oft-quoted aphorism could be rewritten: Those who don't remember history will get a chance to review it. No longer merely something that happened, history now leaves an audio-visual record that makes even the greatest of our previous archives and libraries look incomplete. Raoul Peck's powerful new film I Am Not Your Negro reaches into the archive of the last 50 years to create a film that is both a history lesson and a sharp commentary on our current time. In some ways, it's the synthesis of two of last year's most significant nonfiction films, Ava DuVernay's 13th and Ross Lipman's Notfilm. Like DuVernay's film, it's a call for justice, depicting the history of race in America as an open-ended story; like Lipman's, it's a cinematic essay exploring the ideas of a major literary figure.
In 1979, author James Baldwin began work on a memoir to be titled Remember the House. At 55, Baldwin was becoming reflective. The book would tell of his friendships with three men — Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — each a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, each murdered. But he only wrote 30 pages, and Peck's film uses that unfinished project as his starting point, widening the subject to include the time in which they lived, the author who knew them and the long history that shaped them all.
Baldwin was a unique voice in American letters: As an openly gay, black man, he was an outsider squared. At 24, alienated by prejudice against both his race and his orientation, he moved to Paris but returned in the 1960s, driven by reports of the growing civil rights movement. Seeing photographs of a black teenager being followed by an angry mob as she entered a newly desegregated school told him that he needed to be at the side of the marchers and Freedom Riders.
Peck reaches deep into cultural history, showing not just the usual talking heads and historical milestones, but also drawing in the political and economic factors that shaped the story. Told through a range of Baldwin's essays and lectures, I Am Not Your Negro is also a highly subjective account, not just of the movement and the three men Baldwin knew, but of how the experience of growing up black in America changed the way he lived and thought. We hear his words, read in a calm register by Samuel L. Jackson, but we also see Baldwin himself, a remarkable television presence — a defiant, confident intellectual with an ear-to-ear smile who could hold his own in any public forum. (Peck is generous in his use of his subject's many TV appearances. In one section, as the author criticizes the medium, Peck can't resist contrasting a discussion between Baldwin and a Yale philosophy professor on The Dick Cavett Show with a Jerry Springer free-for-all.)
I Am Not Your Negro is enlightening and absorbing, the kind of film where you wish the makers would publish a companion volume for later browsing. Like Notfilm, it's a stimulating rush of ideas, but like 13th, it's as inciteful as it is insightful. Why are we still watching the films — and fighting the battles — from these 50-year-old streets? Why do we still cringe at the conflicts we had hoped were resolved? I was reminded of a news item I read when protesters interrupted a local baseball game after the Michael Brown shooting: One disgruntled (and irony-deficient) observer proved Santayana right by complaining, "I've already been through one civil rights movement."
Like most films about our racial history, Peck's film contains disturbing images of the past — but they're starting to look more familiar. Watching footage of the grinning white Southerners with their proud swastika signs and racist invective, I used to wonder who those people were and how they looked back on their actions. I don't wonder anymore.