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Saturday, 10 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (6) - I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck, USA/France) Reviewed by Max Berghouse

I Am Not Your Negro. USA and France (2017). Raoul Peck (Director), Velvet Film (Producer), James Baldwin (script – based on his uncompleted work "Remember This House") and the director (balance of scenario). Samuel L Jackson (Narrator). All historic characters as themselves.

In my very early youth the African-American writer James Baldwin was not only critically acclaimed but also a very popular writer. I think now he is only the former. As well as being a distinguished writer of fiction and essayist, he was very much a public intellectual in both USA and France which was a considerable achievement given that he was an African-American and, if not "gay" in the positive connotation of that word, certainly homosexual.

Supportive of the rights of African Americans in the civil rights movement, he was close friends with three of the movement's leaders: Medgar Evers, Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The killing of all three had a profound effect on Mr Baldwin's and ultimately the emotional repercussions on him from these murders, undercut his ability to write. He completed 30 pages of notes in which the murders of his friends formed the central aspect of a rumination on society and race. He was unable to complete it. This manuscript forms the backbone of this powerful film by the Haitian-born director, Raoul Peck. The writing is the narrative over the events of the time and, somewhat elliptically, commentary on an imagined future events from the 1960s, which events are now history. The prime example of this is the election of Mr Obama as president. No attempt is made to smooth out or flatten Mr Baldwin's narrative which, while not at all difficult to follow, is nonetheless not strictly linear. This emphasises that Mr Baldwin was very much a public intellectual who did not speak in soundbites but rather discursively and at length.

Because the director had the full cooperation of the estate of Mr Baldwin, he has access to material that certainly I have not seen, or at least not seen at such length. I note here in particular a very long interview of Mr Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show and it is a credit to both Mr Cavett and Mr Baldwin that so much uncensored material is available to us. Not at all a handsome figure, whose lack of physical attractiveness emphasised by a noticeable gap in his front teeth, his presence on television and elsewhere in the film is of relentless passion and intellect, and indeed anger.


This is one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent years. It is powerful, accurate and at the same time deeply personal in that we see a great deal of Mr Baldwin as a person, but also deeply personal as to the intentions of Mr Peck in which he interweaves the factual story of race with his own continuing interest (as evidenced by his other films) with class.

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