In the beginning were the words, the eloquent, muscular, electric language of James Baldwin, a writer who had extraordinary insights into America’s complex racial crisis.
But what makes “I Am Not Your Negro” a mesmerizing cinematic experience, smart, thoughtful and disturbing, goes well beyond words.
As directed by Raoul Peck, “Negro” utilizes the entire spectrum of film language, not only spoken words but also sound, music, editing and all manner of visuals. They’re all employed with a formidable cinematic intelligence to create a film essay that’s powerfully and painfully relevant today even though its subject died almost 30 years ago.
Best known for dramatic features “Lumumba” and “Sometimes in April,” as well as documentaries on his native Haiti, Peck has been an admirer of the writer since he was 15 and in a closing on-screen note gives “Thanks to James Baldwin the visionary, poet and humanist for his unconditional voice.”
Peck worked on “Negro” for a decade, overseeing its extensive archival research, choosing every image carefully and putting considerable thought and skill into even its smallest moments. (The film is opening for a one-week Academy-qualifying run and will return Feb. 3.)
It was Peck’s unorthodox idea, for instance, to have only Baldwin’s words heard on the soundtrack, either spoken by the man himself or read by Samuel L. Jackson, understanding, the filmmaker said in an interview, that he needed an actor who had “the confidence to be self-effacing.”
The core of “I Am Not Your Negro” comes from Baldwin’s plan to write a book called “Remember This House” about the interconnections between three assassinated leaders who were also his friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Baldwin never finished the book, and while the pages of notes he left behind form the core of “Negro,” Peck makes use of all of Baldwin’s writings in order to deal with other aspects of the man’s life, from his time as an expatriate in Paris to how the youthful influence of a grade-school schoolteacher named Orilla Miller, a woman he nicknamed Bill, was “the reason I could never hate white people.”
It’s Baldwin himself we see at the start of the film, a guest on a 1968 episode of the Dick Cavett Show being asked by the host “Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic -- it’s getting so much better.”
“It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro,” Baldwin says, a look of inexpressible weariness crossing his face. “The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”
This is the theme, the idea that what’s really at stake in racial matters is America’s soul, that Baldwin returns to again and again in the course of the film.
“The truth is this country does not know what to do with its black population,” he says at one point, adding later “Americans can’t face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh.”
Perhaps most movingly, in a televised interview with psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, Baldwin says he is “terrified at the moral apathy -- the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.”
But before it gets to any of that other material, “Negro” cuts immediately from that black-and-white Cavett footage to a sizzling montage of photos from Ferguson and other contemporary scenes of struggle, brilliantly edited to Buddy Guy’s high-octane “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.”
Those opening five minutes reveal the essence of “I Am Not Your Negro,” its insistence on connections between the past and the present, its determination to be probing not comforting, its desire to flat out shake you up.
That sequence also showcases “Negro’s” ability (Alexandra Strauss is the film’s editor) to make startling use of all manner of visual material, from newsreels to a moody moving camera shot looking up at elevated train tracks to a surprising number of clips from Hollywood films.
For, as it turns out, Baldwin was a major fan of the movies and we see moments from and hear his thoughts on not only expected films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Defiant Ones” but unexpected items like “They Won’t Forget” (Clinton Rosemond’s performance as a murder suspect impressed him) and even Doris Day in “Lover Come Back.”
Some of “Negro’s” most provocative moments are unexpected edits between disparate material, like going from Nazis burning books to “King Kong,” and a cut from a pose of Doris Day that unintentionally echoes the image of a black man being lynched.
Peck also makes provocative use of color, colorizing some black-and-white images and changing some color shots to black and white. It’s all as heady and involving as it sounds.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin says at one point, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” As much as any film out there today, “I Am Not Your Negro” helps us face our racial divide and possibly begin to change it as well.
“I Am Not Your Negro”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Rave Cinemas, Baldwin Hills