Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards, Raoul Peck's extraordinary "I Am Not Your Negro" uses as its framework an unfinished 30-page manuscript by author and essayist James Baldwin. The book proposal was started in 1979, and the final work was to explore the experience of being black in America viewed through the prism of the deaths of Baldwin's friends, and legendary figures of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
Peck uses Baldwin's own words -- brought to life through old video interviews and writings read in narration by Samuel L. Jackson -- woven together with archival footage of the civil rights movement and depictions of African-Americans in popular culture to craft an essay film which approximates what that finished book might have felt like. Throughout, Peck wisely allows Baldwin's powerful, poetic, and often angry words to take center stage. The result is as fascinating, infuriating, and moving as you might expect and, as Peck begins to incorporate contemporary footage of racial violence and protests, has as much to say about the current state of things as it does about the past.
"I Am Not Your Negro" is one of a trio of great documentaries from this past year (along with fellow Oscar-nominees "O.J.: Made In America" and Ava DuVernay's "13th") which examine race relations in our country. The films echo and speak to one another, and together offer a galvanizing portrait of the black experience in America. "The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story," Baldwin says. Films like these can offer an opportunity for us to confront that shared history.
This confrontation is necessary, because as Baldwin knew, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."