A powerful voice asks uncomfortable questions about racism

I Am Not Your Negro

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Directed by Raoul Peck

Written by James Baldwin

93 minutes, MA 15+

I Am Not Your Negro is an utterly brilliant film - bold, galvanising, even gripping - but I'm not sure what to call it. It's not a biography of James Baldwin, the black American writer whose words make up the script and are spoken with whispering fire by Samuel L. Jackson; it's not quite a documentary, because that would not describe the free-ranging and impressionistic way in which Haitian-born director Raoul Peck (Lumumba) puts it together. It's an essay film then: a meditation on America, focusing on the last 60 years, for half of which Baldwin was the pre-eminent literary voice for, perhaps even the conscience of, a rising African-American consciousness.

Even that is limiting. Baldwin was not the undisputed conscience of the black community, even if he was central to the development of a philosophical and poetic form of opposition in the late 1950s and 1960s. Other black writers would criticise him for not being radical enough, when black politics turned more hardline in the mid-60s. He returned to France and his house in Provence to continue writing, perhaps in disillusion. He died there in 1987 at the age of 63 from stomach cancer. I mention this because the film does not. Nor does it touch on the fact that he was the eldest of a large family in Harlem, or that he was badly bullied by his stepfather And except in one sentence, taken from an FBI report, the film does not delve into his homosexuality - which can be confusing, when we see him talking about "my wife and my children" during one of his many TV appearances. Those are questions for a biography.

In another sense, it's very clear that Baldwin spoke for all black Americans when he talked about their universal experience of white violence. He carried the black man's burden, in that sense, and that must have been heavy. He talked about his fear of returning to the United States in the late 1950s to go into the South and write about black lives, at a time when desegregation was still unchallenged in many parts of the country. In fact, seeing a photograph in Paris of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts trying to attend school in Charlotte, North Carolina, followed by a mob of jeering white boys, some of whom spat on her, was one of the things that made him return. "Some one of us should have been there with her," he said.

Peck draws on a 30-page outline Baldwin wrote in 1979 for a book about his friendship with three prominent black leaders, each of whom was murdered: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King jnr and Malcolm X. Peck draws as well from Baldwin's other works and his many appearances on TV and film - notably two films by British filmmaker Horace Ove. Peck doesn't interview any "experts" on either Baldwin or American racism. Instead, he puts together direct examples, many of which are too familiar: the Rodney King beating, photographs of lynchings, black and white footage of police beating women and men in the streets in the 1960s, and the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

Binding this together with remarkable eloquence are Baldwin's words, which have lost none of their jagged power. "You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves - and furthermore you give me a terrifying advantage - you never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

I Am Not Your Negro opens up fundamental questions about racism, none of them comfortable. The fact that Baldwin's words have not lost their relevance is hardly good news - and not just for Americans. His words have the power to make us weep; Peck wonders if they still might make us act. "The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright, or as dark, as the future of the country ??? what white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have 'the nigger' in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man ??? if I'm not the nigger here, and you the white people invented him ??? then you gotta find out why - and the future of the country depends on that."

This story A powerful voice asks uncomfortable questions about racism first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.