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(After a huge amount of buzz and moving write-ups, I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary on African-American writer and activist James Baldwin has finally arrived in theaters. Do yourself a favor and check it out at a theater near you via Magnolia Pictures.)

Whether you know a lot, a little, or nothing of the great African-American writer and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987), Raoul Peck’s new documentary I Am Not Your Negro – just nominated for an Academy Award – must become an essential cinematic destination for you in the weeks ahead. Given the current fraught racial climate in our country, fueled by the unfortunate rise of white nationalism, now would be a good time to take stock of the last time our nation fought major political battles over civil rights, in the 1960s. Baldwin, renowned already as a playwright and essayist by then, living in Paris, came back to his homeland to engage the forces of oppression. Director Peck (Lumumba), in meticulous detail, walks us through his subject’s life from childhood precocity to adult eloquence, creating a profile in moral courage that, though occasionally meandering, is a mostly masterful testament to an intellectual titan of the 20th century.

Baldwin features prominently in archival footage, but we also hear his words spoken in voiceover by the actor Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight). He’s a powerful force for change, arguing against white supremacy with wit and wisdom. Peck grounds the whole in a solid history of the times, explaining the very real dangers faced by those who dared oppose entrenched racism. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all gunned down, in turn. Yes, it took real bravery to continue the fight, but Peck successfully shows that the choice was an easy one if you valued liberty; to give up was simply not an option.

The film is divided into chapters, with titles like “Paying My Dues,” “Heroes,” “Selling the Negro,” and “I Am Not a Nigger,” often telling its story as if from the first-person point of view of Baldwin, himself. Its strength lies in the unapologetic rendering of African-American anger and resistance, as embodied by its main subject (who was also gay, a fact to which the film pays only passing reference). There is no attempt to soften or pacify the man’s image, nor should there be. If I Am Not Your Negro has a weakness, it is its lack of focus in certain sections, where Peck tackles too many topics and overwhelms the main argument. Still, for much of its 95 minutes, it presents a cogent narrative that reminds us of the deep-seated inequality on which this country was founded, and offers hope that people of principle can always help us rise above the demons of our past.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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