Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro is not a straight-up biography of writer and civil rights icon James Baldwin, nor does it claim to be — but that makes a certain omission no less frustrating. Using footage both archival and recent, the picture envisions how Baldwin’s barely started book about his slain friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. might have turned out, and in doing so examines how systemic racism has remained entrenched in America. A major theme is media representation. One telling clip from the 1952 film No Way Out features a White snowflake throwing a tantrum about how the attention paid to Black children draws focus away from him. (Sound familiar?) Negro is infuriating for all the right reasons, and one wrong reason: Baldwin was openly and unapologetically queer, but the only reference here is an FBI quote that “Baldwin may be a homosexual.” The movie neither confirms nor denies this, thus implying Baldwin wasn’t homosexual, while narrator Samuel Jackson reads Baldwin’s words with a butch gravitas at odds with the clips of Baldwin’s true verbal panache. The 1960s Civil Rights movement was quite homophobic, and it’s a shame that, consciously or otherwise, I Am Not Your Negro continues that tradition by denying the brave Baldwin that facet of his identity.
I Am Not Your Negro
Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.