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In the face of growing Civil Rights protests, the increased exposure of police/authoritative violence against people of colour, and the vindication of xenophobic political beliefs around the world, it comes as little surprise that 2016 was a watershed year for documentaries that traced the history of systemic racism in America. Three such films were nominated for Academy Awards this season – Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.:Made in America (which ended up winning Best Documentary), and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Of these, DuVernay’s film dug deep into the long history of post-Civil War race relations, Edelman’s covered every inch of one of the most famous criminal cases of the ‘90s, while Peck has explored the ‘60s Civil Rights era through the eyes of James Baldwin, a incendiary novelist, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist whose work is rarely mentioned in casual political discussions.

 I Am Not Your Negro
As described by Magnolia’s official film synopsis: “In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.”

Peck – the Haitian director behind socio-politically-driven narrative/dramatic features, such as Lumumba (2000), Sometimes in April (2005), and Murder in Pacot (2014) – has taken Baldwin’s unfinished work and coupled it with archival interviews to explore the historical elements of the author’s work. The events of the Civil Rights Movement have been covered in their broadest terms throughout  a number of other documentaries, but those films are usually so measurably objective. They often leave it up to the audience to understand the evils of racism as a part of the era. In contrast, Baldwin was a victim of the brutality of Jim Crow regime and privy to revolutionary events, but he also set himself apart as one of the chroniclers of the movement. His ‘objective approach’ to history was informed by painful personal experiences, as well as an affinity for telling stories about the ‘supporting players’ so often overlooked by those other documentaries. Peck uses this information to paint a more specific portrait of the era and connect it to the current political climate, including the Black Lives Matter campaign. In addition, Baldwin’s fondness for and study of film entertainment gives Peck an inroad to explore older motion picture representations of blacks, which he then compares to modern pop-culture portrayals.

 I Am Not Your Negro

Video


I Am Not Your Negro is largely made up of archival footage and stills, and the quality of that material fluctuates. Some is clearly taken from decent film-based sources, but a lot of the TV stuff was taken from video sources, which clearly don’t lend themselves to the best HD representation. Most of the interview footage is pretty high contrast black & white or fuzzy colour TV tape, to boot. Between its grainy and artefacty bits are crisp photo montages and newly-filmed images of pertinent locations, which is clearly shot using high resolution digital cameras. Regardless, the filmmakers employ stylistic choices to ensure this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer appears relatively consistent, despite the changes in resolution and clarity. Better yet, the inconsistencies become tie into the fabric of the film and these differences in texture are certainly as well-preserved as possible (the scenes from Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night actually look better than the Fox Blu-ray). When colour is a factor and the colour quality is clean, the transfer is plenty vivid, and hues are neatly separated.

Audio


I Am Not Your Negro is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, but, like most archive and interview-based documentaries, the bulk of the sound is set in the center channel. The quality of the sound also depends on the condition of the footage. Some interviews are fuzzy and/or tinny, while others sound like they could’ve been conducted just this year. The video and still montages are flecked with occasional post-production effects additions, such as gunshots and crowd noise that gives the stereo/surround a bit more to do, but these are few and far between. Alexei Aigui’s driving jazz and classical score is joined by an eclectic collection of popular music that pertains to the black experience – blues, jazz, hip-hop, gospel, et cetera – from the time periods covered throughout the movie. The music is nicely balanced, clean, and makes decent use of the LFE channel.

 I Am Not Your Negro

Extras


  • Interview with director Raoul Peck (57:55, HD) – In this extensive press kit interview, Peck describes his relationship with Baldwin’s writing, developing the movie, casting Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Baldwin, preserving Baldwin’s legacy, and the difficulties of making the film in the current political climate.
  • Q&A session with Samuel L. Jackson (14:28, HD) – The actor/narrator answers questions after a screening of the film.
  • Q&A session with Peck (14:42, HD) – Peck once again describes the genesis of the film and then fields questions (at a different screening).
  • Video photo gallery (2:28, HD)
  • Trailers for other Magnolia releases


 I Am Not Your Negro

Overall


Arguably, I Am Not Your Negro crams too many intersecting issues and ideas into 93 minutes (after all, O.J.: Made in America ran 467 minutes), but it isn’t a Ken Burns-style chronological unraveling of events (even though it uses archive footage in similar ways) – it’s an impressionistic view of an extremely complex subject. As such, it is also a more purely cinematic experience than many cultural documentaries. In fact, the film’s biggest shortcoming is that it sometimes feels held back by the expectations set by other documentaries, yet Peck’s work is strongest when he is embracing evocative juxtapositions. Still, it’s a fantastic film and Magnolia’s Blu-ray looks and sounds as good as we can probably expect from such an eclectic array of footage. The extras are a nice extension of the film, even if they have the feel of extended advertising content.

 I Am Not Your Negro

 I Am Not Your Negro
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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