Critics' Pick

I Am Not Your Negro (PG-13)

Documentary 95 min. February 3, 2017
By Odie Henderson
Like Ava DuVernay's 13th, Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro travels a straight, well-researched path from the darkest tragedies of American history to the ones that plague the country today. Both films filter African-American life through the prism of the societal construct called race, but while DuVernay's dissertation focuses on mass incarceration and the constitutional means by which it was made possible, Peck's thesis observes the daily struggles of Black folks in America from the brilliant, pointed view of James Baldwin. Almost 30 years after his death, there is still chatter concerned with who could possibly succeed him as a master of Black social commentary. I Am Not Your Negro suggests that there is simply no viable replacement.

Peck chooses as his jumping-off point Baldwin's Remember This House, an unfinished work in which the author sought to discuss the assassinations of three prominent Black leaders of the civil rights era: Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew all of them, and their deaths "devastated his universe." The daunting task of documenting their lives eventually took its toll on the writer, who had only completed 30 pages of this project before his death in 1987. I Am Not Your Negro presents a good chunk of this on its soundtrack, masterfully syncing Baldwin's words to images binding past and present.

Samuel L. Jackson brings Baldwin's words to life, nailing the cadences in his speech, punctuating his words with humor, anger, exasperation and hope. At times, there's an almost feminine quality to Jackson's delivery, a softness that carries surprising power. This isn't just narration -- it's a full-blooded, lived-in performance, one of Jackson's best.
Raoul Peck Samuel L. Jackson James Baldwin, Raoul Peck Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety Magnolia Pictures

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