It's Jackson that reads Baldwin's words in reaction to Evers', X's, and King's death. Never surprised at their assassinations but always affected, Baldwin describes these generational losses culturally and personally. He has the least memory of King's death, but he does remember being comforted. Malcolm X gets the kindest words, as Baldwin speaks of him almost romantically as the most effective chronicler of crimes against black Americans. Each man is treated as a friend or at least an associate by Baldwin, and Peck goes further still. With his superb editor Alexandra Strauss, Peck ensures that the viewer sees these men of history as humans, who had families that came to mourn at their funerals like anyone else who died prematurely.
A film could easily have been made from footage of Baldwin speaking with Dick Cavett and Jackson reading his unfinished manuscript, and these kind of cinematically inert documentaries come out all the time. In their editing and in their choosing where and when to include striking historical imagery, Peck and Strauss elegantly complement Baldwin's words with examples and construct a visual argument that works in conjunction with the sonic one. When Baldwin talks of extermination and genocide, images of Nazi-sympathizing anti-integration crowds fill the screen. Just his words would allow the viewer to hide behind presumed hyperbole and easy Godwin-ing, but no, there are the actual thugs with their actual signs. The viewer is left to imagine these people returning to their normal lives, putting their swastika-emblazoned posters back in the garage and perhaps patting their children on the head before they go to work the next day, exemplars of the American dream that Baldwin earlier categorized as commercial and empty.
Peck and Strauss reach all the way through the 20th century to the present, including horrifically-racist advertising and infantilizing Hayes Code Hollywood side by side with the militarized police force of Ferguson. They allow the force of Baldwin's oft-prescient words to wash over events and trends that continued to play out after his death in 1987. Peck ends his bravura film with a moving montage of black families, moving from sharecroppers to the present day. This invites the viewer to consider progress in that time period, but also stasis. How different is 'the talk' among black families over these 100+ years, where heartbroken parents have to tell their innocent preteen children that their simple existence puts them at greater risk than their lighter-skinned peers and they have to take necessary precautions? Why can a man who would attend a lynching and then smile for photographs with the body more easily blend into society than the most morally upright black man? Through Baldwin's incisive speech and Peck's unblinking direction, I Am Not Your Negro asks these questions and more. Baldwin describes America as a place that likes to call itself a Christian nation but knows nothing of Christianity in practice. A more just nation would at least know of original sin, and how the unacknowledged stain of it continues to impact its citizens every day. A-