To call “I Am Not Your Negro” a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Mr. Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject. The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence. His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present.
Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance. He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.
Baldwin is a double character in Mr. Peck’s film. The elegance and gravity of his formal prose, and the gravelly authority of Mr. Jackson’s voice, stand in contrast to his quicksilver on-camera presence as a lecturer and television guest. In his skinny tie and narrow suit, an omnipresent cigarette between his fingers, he imports a touch of midcentury intellectual cool into our overheated, anti-intellectual media moment.
A former child preacher, he remained a natural, if somewhat reluctant, performer — a master of the heavy sigh, the raised eyebrow and the rhetorical flourish. At one point, on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with Paul Weiss, a Yale philosophy professor who scolds him for dwelling so much on racial issues. The initial spectacle of mediocrity condescending to genius is painful, but the subsequent triumph of self-taught brilliance over credentialed ignorance is thrilling to witness.