In 1979 James Baldwin made a book proposal for a personal account of his friendships with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
However, when Baldwin died in 1987, he had only finished 30 pages. Director Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” draws from that unfinished manuscript to create a socially conscious narrative poem on film.
Peck incorporates the knowable (images from Baldwin’s time, including pictures of the writer, who died at age 63) and the unknowable — clips of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Peck’s film in a calm and relaxed voice, much as an uncle might tell a story on a slow afternoon. But Jackson’s speaking only the writer’s own words, so this is Baldwin’s story as edited and presented by Peck.
Although older than Evers, Malcolm and King, he outlived them all. Baldwin, who was gay, wasn’t a comfortable fit for the civil rights movement, which during the 1950s and 1960s didn’t include gays or lesbians.
One wonders what creative block prevented Baldwin from completing his book? Was it grief? The tone of the documentary is necessarily somber. All three men were murdered. Most people are familiar with King. Besides a national holiday in his honor, a Golden Globe-winning 2014 movie on the Selma to Montgomery marches, “Selma,” focused on him. Malcolm X is also well known, but what is less well known is that according to Baldwin, “By the time each died, they had virtually the same position,” he said.
Also less well known was the Mississippi-born Evers, a World War II vet and college graduate. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked toward getting African Americans admitted to the University of Mississippi. He was murdered by White Citizens’ Council member Bryon de la Beckwith who wasn’t convicted of the murder until 1994, when new evidence came to light.
Baldwin recounts the infamous 1963 Bobby Kennedy meeting in which he and playwright Lorraine Hansberry asked that Bobby urge his brother, President John Kennedy, to supply federal agents to escort a small black girl scheduled to enter a formerly segregated school in the Deep South so that it would be clear that “whoever spits on that girl will be spitting on the nation.”
Hansberry’s family had gone to the US Supreme Court (Hansberry v. Lee) in 1940 to end a restrictive covenant that prevented African Americans from buying or leasing land in a Chicago neighborhood. She used that experience to write “A Raisin in the Sun” and became the first black woman to write a Broadway play. But Baldwin and Hansberry were unsuccessful with Kennedy, who concluded that “It would be a meaningless gesture,” as Baldwin recounts.
Hansberry, failing to get “a moral commitment,” gave Bobby a withering look and left the room. Hansberry died soon after in 1965 at the age of 34.
“The story of the negro in America is the story of America,” as Baldwin said. Peck shows us how this was true in a non-confrontational way, making this documentary a thoughtful meditation on race in the United States as seen through the eyes of major American writer and his relationship with three assassinated leaders of the civil rights movement.
“I Am Not Your Negro” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and was also screened at the November AFI Festival in Los Angeles. “I Am Not Your Negro” was given a special mention by the Black Film Critics Circle Awards and won the Audience Choice Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. It also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle’s Best Documentary Award.
“I Am Not Your Negro” opens Friday at Laemmle Playhouse 7.