America’s Moral Monsters: I Am Not Your Negro

i am not your negro I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck
Opens February 3

There is a moment in I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s masterfully eloquent living essay on race and America, when its subject/speaker/agonist James Baldwin decries how whites allow themselves to become “moral monsters” through unexamined bigotry. Quoting the phrase without further context or Baldwin’s typically vigorous rhetorical lead-up won’t capture its power, but suffice to say that Baldwin in this film conveys the very opposite of those words: appearing in riveting archival appearances and through an interior voiceover of readings delivered by Samuel L. Jackson, he is a bona fide hero. By which I mean Peck—still best known for 2000’s Lumumba—succeeds both in distilling the full force of Baldwin’s piercing arguments and in presenting him as an emblem of moral courage, fearsome to comprehend yet more exhilarating than any movie soldier on a battlefield. The battle was unavoidable.

I Am Not Your Negro adapts the text of a late book proposal by Baldwin concerning Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King. It tacks between the great American thinker’s riveting performances and an effortlessly dizzying fugue of stereotyped images, whitewashed drama, present-day police violence, and rallies from the civil rights era and the present. Working with Spike Lee editor Sam Pollard, Peck modulates his film brilliantly between the sometimes hushed contemplations in Jackson’s ruminative voice, and Baldwin’s tightrope walks in person, speaking terrifying truth to Dick Cavett, to other TV hosts, to a roomful of twenty-something Cambridge University debate society acolytes. In one of several jawdropping improvisations, Baldwin riffs on acknowledging that he doesn’t know what lies in his countrymen’s hearts, but despairs at the facts of their exclusionary actions—what he calls the evidence.

Baldwin’s manner moves among modes of soliloquy and oratory, raising his eyebrows in laugh-test reaction to an egghead’s dismissal in one clip, and looking up and around as if searching for the words, even as he confidently speaks out. Peck’s scholarship in Baldwin’s work is apparent in the incisiveness of his selections: whole swaths of American history are aptly summarized in a line here, a line there, of Baldwin’s thought. Apathy and ignorance power banal bias, fostered by segregation and abetted by a denial of self-knowledge; whiteness is not a race so much as “a metaphor for power.” Baldwin as film critic of alienation emerges too, with plentiful clips illustrating the hall-of-mirrors shaping, reshaping, unshaping, and oblivion of the American image, the American way. One of Peck’s audacious cuts goes from Doris Day in a kitchen singing about whether tonight might be the night she puts out, to (in a match cut from Day looking up) a lynching victim.

Like the moral monsters line, the Doris Day cut is a dramatic moment that rests on a persuasive progression, yet never does I Am Not Your Negro feel like a foregone conclusion, or simply a steady simmer of rage, or an illustrated lecture. By the end—which, even against one’s better judgment and Baldwin’s own wholesale integrity and historical specificity, it’s hard not to take as prophecy—the film has explained how not only action but introspection on the issue(s) of race is a moral and mortal necessity for the republic.

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