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Baldwin documentary one of the year’s best

When the Oscars were handed out a week ago, the Best Documentary Feature award went to the ESPN production "O.J.: Made in America." But though worthy, it had stiff competition. Below is my review of one of the other nominees, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Of the five 2016 films nominated for Best Documentary Feature, three deal with American race relations. And one of those films, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” serves a valuable dual purpose: It both refreshes our collective memory of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and it introduces a great American writer to a new generation of readers.

James Baldwin isn’t exactly a forgotten man. But whenever lists of influential writers of the 20th century are made public, his name is seldom included. Yet as Peck’s film shows, Baldwin was an important voice during one of this country’s most turbulent eras.

Born in 1924, Baldwin was a precocious New York City kid who grew up facing prejudice both because of his race and, later, because of his sexual orientation. In fact, Baldwin was writing about the lives of gay men long before the birth of any kind of gay movement.

Having made connections in the New York literary scene, writing for such publications as The Nation and Partisan Review, Baldwin – to escape what to him was a stultifying atmosphere – moved to Paris. Then in his mid-20s, Baldwin blossomed, over the years churning out novels such as 1953’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as well as essays, criticism and even stage plays.

Peck mentions some of this in “I Am Not Your Negro” – which is a line that Baldwin himself delivered – but his focus is on a period encompassed by the deaths of three major voices in the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In the years before his own death in 1987, Baldwin worked on a book about the three martyred leaders – a book he never finished.

Using Baldwin’s own words, spoken with an understated sense of power by the actor Samuel L. Jackson, Peck shapes a narrative that both captures the strength of Baldwin’s intelligence and convictions while portraying the racial struggles that confronted each of the slain men – all of whom were Baldwin’s friends. Peck augments Jackson’s spoken narrative, which is drawn from a number of Baldwin’s written works, with visuals collected from a variety of sources: newsreels, television shows (such as those hosted by Dick Cavett) and – as visual footnotes – movies such as “The Defiant Ones,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

But even when our protagonist is put up against the charismatic screen presences of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, or even King or Malcolm X, director Peck makes sure that it is Baldwin who stands out. And Baldwin makes the director’s job easy. For whether responding to Cavett, contradicting a pompous (and white) professor of philosophy, or in 1965 debating the noted conservative William F. Buckley in front of an audience of Cambridge University students, Baldwin commands our attention.

“The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” the prescient Baldwin says. How bright that future is, given recent events, is more questionable now than ever.

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