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February 12, 2017

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‘I’m Not Your Negro’ tackles race issues

SOMEWHAT deep into the searing and utterly necessary documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck overlays audio from a 1960 US Government film “The Land We Love,” in which the narrator extols the virtues of America and the freedoms afforded all citizens, with images from the 1965 Watts Riots.

While the juxtaposition might not be a revolutionary technique to convey incongruities, in this film it captures the sum of the essential American hypocrisy: Black people suffer while the white people play.

Peck’s restraint to build to and save that gut punch for a moment when he’s certain the audience can comprehend not just the images but the ideas behind it, is a testament to the studied excellence of the film.

It is not only a must see, but one that should be studied and absorbed over many viewings.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is inspired and informed by “Remember This House,” an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin in which he aspired to tell the story of America through the death of three friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin had written only 30 pages before his own death in 1987.

Peck uses Baldwin’s words (read by Samuel L. Jackson) from “Remember This House” and archival footage of various speeches and interviews to create an urgent narrative of race in America that encompasses past and present.

Baldwin was writing and speaking about his time, his friends and their moment, but his ideas and truths transcend the specificity of the 1960s. It makes sense when Peck fast-forwards to images of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Amir Brooks, or headlines about mass shootings.

“History is not the past, it’s the present,” Jackson says for Baldwin. “We are our history.”

Baldwin’s words, Jackson’s reading and Peck’s elegant and scorching composition will resonate for years to come.


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