Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro deserves full-throated commendation for potentially introducing the national treasure that was James Baldwin to the masses.
Though I love the documentary’s approach of compiling an old writer’s various words to comment on modern issues, as someone who was exposed to a lot of Baldwin’s work in college, the way Peck splices together his texts diminishes their power, especially compared to the impact of his ideas when reading his unedited pieces.
In addition, though Sam Jackson orates Baldwin’s words with uncharacteristic restraint, the greatest actor alive would pale in comparison to Baldwin’s own delivery. His cadence – particularly his liberal use of the pregnant pause – is key to fully understanding his thoughts when verbally expressed. Short of removing Baldwin from the doc or only using his voice – which probably would’ve been impossible unless there’s a treasure trove of recordings out there somewhere – this may have been an unrectifiable problem.
I Am Not Your Negro is admittedly a lofty endeavor – and a noble one – but Peck doesn’t totally hit the desired mark. Even so, hopefully other titans of the written word will receive this same treatment, and their documentarians will learn from the “mistakes” committed here.
I used quotes in the last sentence because many of my friends previously unfamiliar with Baldwin absolutely adore I Am Not Your Negro, even though they admit their admiration largely stems from the introduction it provided. I’ve long been fascinated by how much an audience’s pre-existing knowledge regarding the subject of a documentary or biopic determines their enjoyment.
Pablo Larraín provided an interesting case-study in 2016 with Neruda and Jackie; I vastly preferred the latter, but maybe that was due to how much more I know about Jacqueline Kennedy than Pablo Neruda? If so, it would be the converse equation to the differing responses of me and my friends regarding I Am Not Your Negro based on our relative Baldwin expertise…thus the reason “I’ve long been fascinated by” this topic!