Stars: Samuel L Jackson
Released: 7th April 2017
Based on writer James Baldwin’s unfinished 30-page manuscript Remember This House, this acclaimed,Oscar nominated documentary by Raoul Peck seeks to complete what Baldwin might have written. With footage of Baldwin’s television interviews (when everyone, it seems smoked like a chimney), his address to the Cambridge university student union and excerpts from his writings, voiced by Samuel L Jackson, the film takes us through the build up to the American civil rights movement, the era of activism during the movement itself and the aftermath which we are still seeing today.
Baldwin, who died in 1987, would now be called an African American, would then have been a black man and earlier still, a negro, was a novelist, essayist, playwright and social critic. However his book might have turned out, this film takes his many personas and tries to use them all to create an overview of the black experience in the USA. It doesn’t always work. The country, the topic and the man are all too complex too shoehorn into one documentary. Baldwin also has a particular style of writing and speaking, not to mention thinking. And that, at times, is the film’s weakness. Baldwin can be an acquired taste as writer and thinker. His mannered presentation and intellectual distance can get jarring at times because they add an extra barrier between his experience and what you are trying to understand through him. Two people at my press screening walked out less than halfway into the film. The woman next to me fidgeted and sighed heavily at various points and made to leave more than once although she did eventually stay until the end. Baldwin’s rather detached style, however, can’t take away from the tumultuous events he lived through and the enormity of the historical relevance of the people he knew; Dr Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Had the film anchored itself around these three figures as experienced by Baldwin, it might have been more compelling.
Baldwin is at his most effective when he lets the emotion come through in his writing. That’s when Samuel L Jackson brilliantly captures the essence of the man and you are drawn most into what he is saying. Incidentally, this voice work may well be Jackson’s best work generally since Pulp Fiction.
Jackson speaks over, among other things, clips from the adverts and movies of the 1960s as well as earlier examples going back to the 1930s as Baldwin analyses what he calls the “mirror stage” of culture that black people went through in America in those years. As children they watched the movies of the day and cheered for the white heroes only to then see themselves in the mirror and realise they, in fact, more resembled the dark ‘baddies’ and Indians they had booed. This is when the film is at its strongest. When it seeks to come up to date with photographs and footage of President Obama and Black Lives Matter protests this doesn’t always work. The film becomes ‘bitty’ trying to link too many threads of a complex situation into a cohesive whole. However, there is no denying the force of the words and visuals from the 60s which Baldwin saw first hand, lived through and recorded for posterity.
It would have been interesting to see what thoughts and analysis his unfinished work might have revealed.
I Am Not Your Negro is out in selected cinemas now