James Baldwin has a “tell,” and we see it a couple of times in I Am Not Your Negro. The famously eloquent writer spoke often of what it means to be black in America, almost always with a clear, swift, lightness of phrase that belied the seriousness of the topic. But here and there in director Raoul Peck’s documentary, he pauses, lowers his head, and places a finger or two at his temple. “They just don’t get it,” he seems to be saying to himself, before picking up where he left off in his fluently reasonable way.
I Am Not Your Negro is an extension of Baldwin’s many attempts—through his plays, novels, and essays—to help white America “get it.” Loosely (perhaps a bit too loosely) structured around Baldwin’s plans at one point to write a book about the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., the documentary expands from there to apply, largely through collage imagery and newsreel footage, Baldwin’s thoughts to contemporary society. And what we (re)discover is what Baldwin pointed out long ago: it isn’t necessarily hatred, or anger, or even fear that drives discrimination against African-Americans. It’s willful ignorance. When it comes to the country’s history and current realities, those in power and privilege just don’t want to know.
I Am Not Your Negro functions as a potent corrective to that sort of ignorance. And although the selection and use of historical footage is sometimes haphazard, the movie does have one creative masterstroke: Samuel L. Jackson’s narration, drawn from Baldwin’s own, first-person words. Jackson sounds nothing like himself, but he’s not going for a Baldwin impersonation either. Measured, convicted, and yet tinged with a weariness that feels centuries old, it’s the voice of the American conscience—a voice so many of us work so hard not to hear.