‘I Am Not Your Negro’ brings James Baldwin back to the spotlight

James Baldwin’s unfinished “Remember This House” is at the center of “I Am Not Your Negro.”  Magnolia Pictures.

Director Raoul Peck wanted his documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” to be about James Baldwin – and only James Baldwin.

“How do I respect him?” Peck says he asked himself early on, when mapping out his film about the acclaimed African-American writer. “I didn’t want talking heads [interviews] because I didn’t want anybody to be the interpreter. I didn’t want to be an interpreter – I wanted to be a messenger.”

“I Am Not Your Negro,” is Peck’s attempt to visually complete Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House,” a study of race relations in America using the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as a lens. Baldwin, who knew all three men but never achieved their level of fame, died in 1987, leaving only about 30 pages of the work. The film combines those words (read by an off-screen Samuel L. Jackson); archival footage of Baldwin, Evers, King and Malcolm X; images from the struggle for civil rights; and contemporary footage of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Baltimore to show how prescient Baldwin’s work was.

“I was trying to make a fundamental film, a film that would define Baldwin again, that would make sure he would survive the test of time,” Peck says. “I could see these last 20 years, people were not only forgetting him, but almost putting him aside as a has-been. He is part of the package.”

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“I Am Not Your Negro” doesn’t tell the story of a general “civil rights movement,” but instead examines the tensions among King, Evers, Malcolm X and Baldwin himself. Baldwin (and consequently Peck) wanted to show that civil rights achievements in the 1960s weren’t just a matter of a few marches and sit-ins, but a sociopolitical movement where the leaders sometimes couldn’t agree on the goal, much less the methods for achieving it. It’s a history that’s glossed over and made more palatable to the masses, who would rather share the nicest of King’s words on Facebook than confront his economic arguments.

“The monuments they are building for Martin Luther King – and not, by the way, for Malcolm X – those monuments are selective,” Peck says. “You won’t find the speeches of the last two years of Martin Luther King’s life; those speeches are too radical. Those speeches are talking about something very different – the fight against poverty, the fight against class in this country – and those speeches made him dangerous. It’s a sanitization of this history, to take whatever is clean and what doesn’t create problems.

“Once you start building monuments,” Peck continues, “it’s a way to tell you, ‘This is now tradition, you don’t need to worry about it, all the problems are solved.’ And that’s the trap.” Bringing Baldwin’s words and works back into the national conversation about race is Peck’s way of preventing the civil rights movement from becoming locked in the past.