Film I am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin, center, stars in "I Am Not Your Negro." In Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated documentary, Baldwin's searing observations on race and America are resurrected for today. Peck and others say Baldwin's words could hardly be more urgent.

Magnolia Pictures

How interesting that “Get Out,” a horror movie that’s also a commentary on contemporary race issues, was released simultaneously with the Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro.”

In 1979, the late novelist, poet and playwright James Baldwin – the author of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” among other novels -- who died in 1987, decided to work on a project called “Remember This House.” The book was supposed to be about the lives and assassinations of his close friends and civil rights activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Only 30 pages of the manuscript were finished. So director Raoul Peck (“Lumumba”) puts his own spin on what that book might have become in a documentary that’s a sort of essay or monologue, using footage of Baldwin on televised interviews and with narrator Samuel L. Jackson – in a surprisingly restrained delivery – delivering Baldwin’s words.

Baldwin’s words from decades ago are heard over visuals of recent race-related protests and violence. representation in Hollywood and beyond.

Watching the great intellectual Baldwin speak about the African-American experience is squirm-inducing, partly because what he has to say still applies to contemporary society. “History is present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal,” Baldwin says.

African-Americans never bought into the concepts that white Americans have, “that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure.”

Baldwin mentions that, in the 1960s, Robert Kennedy said he saw no reason in the foreseeable future “that a negro could not also be president of the United States.”

Baldwin’s words, along with Peck’s images, are provocative and challenging – the very title of the film itself is challenging.

Watching the archival footage isn’t easy. The rallies against integration, children simply trying to go to school and up-close sequences of faces consumed with hate made my blood run cold.

Clips from films that are decades old are shown to depict the difference between the way whites and African-Americans are fascinating, especially a sequence from “The Defiant Ones,” in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier play escaped convicts chained together.

So who’s the audience for this penetrating, controversial analysis of racial tension then and now? I think it’s important for the generations to see it together. Grandparents, take your older grandchildren (this definitely is not for little children). Teachers, take your students.

We do carry our history with us. And, through this film, we can acknowledge what we’re carrying.