Astonishing portrait of James Baldwin's civil rights fight
Raoul Peck dramatises the author’s memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers, in this vivid and vital documentary
Spider Martin’s famous photo of protestors facing police in Selma before they were beaten, which is featured in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck’s outstanding, Oscar-nominated documentary is about the African American activist and author James Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time. Peck dramatises Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, his personal memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, murdered by a segregationist in 1963. Baldwin re-emerges as a devastatingly eloquent speaker and public intellectual; a figure who deserves his place alongside Edward Said, Frantz Fanon or Gore Vidal.
Peck puts Samuel L Jackson’s steely narration of Baldwin’s words up against a punchy montage of footage from the Jim Crow to the Ferguson eras, and a fierce soundtrack. (It’s incidentally a great use of Buddy Guy’s Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, which never sounded so angry or political.) There is a marvellous clip of Baldwin speaking at the Cambridge Union Society, and another on the Dick Cavett Show – the host looking sick with nerves, perhaps because he was about to bring on a conservative intellectual for balance, whom Baldwin would politely trounce.
Baldwin has a compelling analysis of a traumatised “mirror stage” of culture that black people went through in 20th-century America. As kids, they would cheer and identify with the white heroes and heroines of Hollywood culture; then they would see themselves in the mirror and realise they were different from the white stars, and in fact more resembled the baddies and “Indians” they’d been booing.
Devastatingly eloquent … James Baldwin. Photograph: Allstar/Brittany House Pictures
The film shows Baldwin refusing to be drawn into the violence/non-violence difference of opinion between King and Malcolm X that mainstream commentators leaped on, and steadily maintaining his own critique – although I feel that Peck’s juxtaposition of Doris Day’s mooning and crooning with a lynch victim is a flourish that approximates Baldwin’s anger but not his elegance. There is a compelling section on Baldwin’s discussion of dramatist Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun. It is vivid, nutritious film-making.