I Am Not Your Negro

Tom Van Kalken | 31/05/2017

Raoul Peck's insightful new documentary proves the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There are few people throughout history that are able to truly master the art of oration, but it’s safe to say that James Baldwin is one of those few. I’m ashamed to say that, before watching Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary, I knew very little of acclaimed black author and civil rights champion James Baldwin. That has now changed.


Back in 1979, Baldwin wrote about a plan to write a book linking the lives of the three most prominent figures of the 1960s civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. All of whom never reached the age of 40, all of whom were assassinated, and all of whom were close friends of Baldwin’s. Baldwin’s manuscript for his book, titled ‘Remember this House’, never surpassed 30 pages before his death in 1987. It’s here, 30 years later, that director Raoul Peck (Fatal Assistance, 2013), takes up the baton to finish what Baldwin started.


Samuel L. Jackson provides the narration for the film, which Peck intercuts with archival interviews of Baldwin and scenes from more contemporary events such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the Ferguson riots of 2014. This juxtaposing serves as a poignant reminder that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re reminded throughout the film that the problems faced by the African-American community through the 1950s and 1960s are still an ongoing struggle today.


As much as the film focuses on these issues, we also learn a great deal about the life of Baldwin himself, an intellectual whose oratory skills were equal to the three men he wrote about. Baldwin’s own eloquent and sorrowful analysis of the race issue in America, despite being made 50 years ago, is hauntingly accurate.


The film provides a fascinating insight into the struggle for economic and social freedom of America’s disenfranchised African American population at a time where the country’s racial lines seem to be more visible than ever, making ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ both a timely and timeless product of the age we live in.