In Praise of I Am Not Your Negro and the Passive Documentary

There are two James Baldwins in Raoul Peck’s quietly moving documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” One exists in old video interviews and speeches, full of fire, bluster, and eloquence. He’s never without a lit cigarette, taking quick drags to collect his thoughts. He fidgets, bugs out his eyes, rubs his temples, proselytizes, flashes big smiles, and unleashes a torrent of well-articulated rhetoric. Everything he says and does feels instantly iconic.

But then there’s the second James Baldwin. We only encounter him in a voice-over narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. He’s weary, contemplative, and vaguely defeatist. He muses on the past and the future of race relations in America, often with a pessimistic view. Jackson’s narration gives the words an extra level of exhaustion, transforming them into a feature-length sigh.

We’re left with a striking juxtaposition: The public firebrand versus the tight-lipped introvert. It’s as dichotomous as the Saturday night bender and the Sunday morning hangover. We see both sides of Baldwin’s thoughts; the hope and the despair. It’s never simple and it’s never spelled out for us. We’re not given a flat circle; we’re given a sphere.

“Negro,” despite focusing on something as divisive as race, is a surprisingly relaxed movie. It’s not exactly laid back, but it does have a leisurely, deliberate pace. It unfolds semi-chronologically, revealing details of Baldwin’s life and philosophy through three distinct acts: The assassinations of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin’s voice is the only one we ever hear. There are no talking heads or hand-holding expository narration. It’s not a straightforward biography or historical account; it’s a journey through someone’s life how they see it. It mimics the feeling of sitting at the end of a bar near closing time while someone unravels one incredible story after another; there’s a haze and an electricity in the air.

“Negro” is a deeply lyrical documentary. The images of rural and urban America are perfectly wed with Baldwin’s writings. Sprawling fields, mazes of steel, dilapidated houses, and stock footage of riots and protests accompany Baldwin’s verbose, elegant prose. The film isn’t trying to instruct or teach the viewer, but engage them. It wants the audience to think about the words and pictures they’re seeing and derive their own meaning from them. The film is very much a “show-don’t’tell” proposition.

“Negro” is a passive documentary. That description is a compliment, not an insult. It’s meant to wash over you, sweeping you along as it reveals the scope of its story. You can engage with its ideas and arguments on a myriad of levels, or simply choose to appreciate its visual and audio beauty. It never imposes itself on the audience. It has an underlying message, but it doesn’t force it down the viewer’s throat. “Negro” is a lake; you decide how deep you want to sink into it.

In an era where documentaries often scream at the audience, desperately trying to moralize, teach, and preach, the quiet, assured brilliance of “I Am Not Your Negro” is the perfect antidote.