A journey, wrote author James Baldwin, is called that “because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”
Raoul Peck’s searing, poetic documentary based on Baldwin’s writings, “I Am Not Your Negro,” is itself a journey of discovery, a path of words and images, taking us into the lives of four African-American men and into the heart of the civil-rights movement.
Baldwin, a native New Yorker who lived in France for most of his adult life, was an influential novelist (his fiction included “Go Tell It on the Mountain”) and essayist (“Notes of a Native Son” and many others). Late in his life, he approached his agent with an idea for a new work: a look at race in America, through the lives of his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
It would be, he wrote, “a matter of research, and journeys,” but he never finished it; all that remained of the project at the time of his 1987 death was a 30-page manuscript titled “Remember This House.”
Those notes are the basis for Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, told in Baldwin’s voice through a combination of archival footage and contemporary recording of his words (eloquently read by Samuel L. Jackson). But it’s also a flurry of pictures and video, each speaking as loudly as a shout.
A young black woman in a plaid dress — back straight, eyes resolutely distant — faces a jeering mob as she arrives at her desegregated high school in the 1950s South. A widow gazes at her husband, lying in a coffin. A black actor, in a little-known 1930s film called “They Won’t Forget,” looks at the camera with an expression of abject terror; “the man’s face,” Baldwin wrote, “bangs in my memory until today.” A body hangs lifelessly from a rope, in incongruous sunlight.
It’s not a biopic, but “I Am Not Your Negro” leaves you wanting to know and read more of Baldwin, to experience the language that pours from this film like a fiery balm. And it’s not, precisely, a civil rights history, and yet it just might leave you with a new understanding, a new anger.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed,” Baldwin reminds us, in words that resonate today, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
(At the Tivoli.)
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:33.