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Review: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ takes on race relations

Samuel L. Jackson narrates this brutal and effective film about late New York writer James Baldwin

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America,” narrator Samuel L. Jackson intones in the brutally effective documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” “It is not a pretty story.”

And “I Am Not Your Negro” is not a pretty movie. It takes a harsh, uncompromising look at race relations in America, through the lens of late New York novelist, playwright and poet James Baldwin and his relationships and interactions with civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Jackson’s stern, smoldering narration allows him to become Baldwin; he speaks in the first person as him throughout the film, and his low rumble of a voice is so far removed from the familiar, shout-y “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson that he’s barely recognizable. (If there was an Academy Award for narration, he would win it.) Jackson gives fire to director Raoul Peck’s incendiary film, which uses the role of African-Americans in media and popular culture from the early 1900s until now to underscore its points about the power of imagery.

Baldwin died in 1987, but his observations hold true today, and “I Am Not Your Negro” draws a straight line from the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

It is an urgent, gut-wrenching film that doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. America’s race problem is all of our problem, it argues, and will not change until all of us step up and take responsibility for our role in it.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” Baldwin said. For it’s part, “I Am Not Your Negro” faces things unflinchingly head-on.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘I Am Not Your Negro’

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13: for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity

Running time: 95 minutes