Film: A voice for civil rights that can still mesmerise

A still from I Am Not Your Negro

In 1979, the black American author James Baldwin wrote to his publisher proposing a book called Remember This House, a personal memoir of three famous US civil rights activists who were also his friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all assassinated before reaching 40. By the time Baldwin himself died in 1987, he had only completed 30 pages.

Now the director Raoul Peck has reinvigorated the project in cinematic form, with I Am Not Your Negro (12A, 93 mins, ★★★★) which links Baldwin’s writing – voiced by Samuel L Jackson – to footage of the civil rights era and older historical documentation. The result is undeniably powerful. The stark details of slavery, for example, still shock: an “infant, nine months” casually packaged and sold as part of “a large lot of Negroes”.

The most directly compelling figure is Baldwin himself, as seen in archival interviews: slight and electric, with darting eyes and a mesmerising vocal delivery. Baldwin, who grew up poor in Harlem, lived through the racial discrimination which he so clearly articulated, and was drawn back to the US from Paris in 1957 by a compulsion to bear witness.

Much of the film deals with his observations of growing up black in an America then dominated – in everything from film to politics – by white culture, from which, he slowly realised as a child, he was implicitly excluded. As he told a Cambridge University audience in 1965: “It comes as a great shock to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance – along with everybody else –  has not pledged allegiance to you.”

One detail in the film sees Baldwin arguing that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, who approached civil rights from radically different perspectives, later grew closer in their outlook. Peck’s film also directly links racial prejudice in the 1960s to more recent incidents of US police brutality; yet at times, one yearns for less reach and more depth.

If Baldwin’s question “What am I to America?” remains intensely relevant for black US citizens today, then the answers have also changed in complex ways. One could make not just one more film about that, but many.

I Am Not Your Negro (15, 109 mins, ★★★) is a fiction based on the true story of another public intellectual: the celebrated Chilean poet and communist senator Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, better known as Pablo Neruda, who was forced into hiding when the president outlawed communism and issued a warrant for his arrest in 1948.

Its theme is the cat-and-mouse game between Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and the police inspector (Gael García Bernal) hunting him – although, with the conceit that Neruda is writing the script for the chase, it becomes blurrier who is the cat and who is the mouse. Pablo Larraín’s film floats from the nitty-gritty of politics into the headier dreams of art, but remains evocative and beautifully shot throughout.