James Baldwin was one of the most important voices to document the civil rights movement. Black and gay, he was also one of the sharpest writers of his generation, with the most beautiful prose. Working from Baldwin’s unfinished 30-page manuscript Remember This House, Raoul Peck’s documentary animates his words with Samuel L Jackson’s voice, illustrating them with archive footage of adverts, interviews, newsreels, film clips (mostly from the 1930s, such as Harry Beaumont’s Dance, Fools, Dance and Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget) and still photographs of Black Lives Matter protests. In the text, Baldwin describes wanting the lives of his friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr to “bang against each other” as they did before their eventual assassinations. Baldwin’s words feel as urgent and articulate as ever, though Peck’s attempts to link history with present-day race relations feel a little clunky next to the elegance of the text.
The film is at its strongest showing Baldwin as both critic and memoirist; maintaining a tone of conversational tenderness and moving seamlessly between analysis and personal essay. Interspersed with footage of Baldwin himself, it’s thrilling to watch him speak his own words. Yet this is perhaps the film’s main problem. It’s a good thing that Peck reveres Baldwin’s words enough to let them do the work, but a more interesting documentary might have tried to complicate or contextualise them. Still, this is an excellent primer for those less familiar with Baldwin.