The nominations for this year's Oscars include one important black cinematographer, Bradford Young (for Arrival), and two important black directors, Barry Jenkins (for Moonlight) and Raoul Peck (for I Am Not Your Negro). All three are brilliant artists, and were pretty much obscure until this year. What their nominations make clear is that this year's Oscars are doing more than just repairing last year's damage (#OscarsSoWhite). These filmmakers deserve the recognition and have paid dues to earn it.
Young introduced a whole new universe of black skin in Selma in 2014; Jenkins's 2009 Medicine for Melancholy is a heartbreakingly beautiful and urban love story; and in 2001, Peck transformed the murder of a mid-century African revolutionary, Patrice Lumumba, into a drama, Lumumba, with the intensity of a Hollywood thriller. These works were appreciated by those in the know, but by almost no one else.
Sixteen years after Lumumba, Peck, who is Haitian, has directed I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about one of the greatest writers of 20th-century America, James Baldwin. Now, it's easy to make a great film about Baldwin, because, like Muhammad Ali, there's tons of cool footage of his public and private moments, and, also like Ali, he had a fascinating face: the odd shape of his head, the triangle of hair that defined his forehead, and his froggy eyes. Just show him doing his thing and your film will do just fine.
But Peck blended footage of Baldwin with dusky and dreamy images of contemporary America. These images say: Ain't a damn thing changed from the days of Baldwin and the Civil Rights Movement. But they say this with a very deep insight about the nature of time. Contemporary America is the present as history. The popular concept of time has it moving forward, by the machine of the present, and events fixed in the past ever receding into the distance. This is not the concept of time Peck presents in I Am Not Your Negro. For him, the past is nowhere but in the now. It does not freeze, recede, and finally vanish at some point in a temporal landscape; it is only the moment.
There is also an accident in this film. Peck obviously made the documentary with the Black Lives Matter movement in mind. Baldwin's words are presented as alive with our times. But the documentary turns out to be not so much about Black Lives Matter as about how and why millions of white Americans voted for Trump. Baldwin is at his best when he's describing the illusions, vulnerability, and anger of white America. His insights on white racism are powerful because he is not angry. Baldwin loved white people as much as black people or any other member of the human family. As a consequence, he didn't speak or speechify like a jackhammer; his goal was not to beat the truth into the hard heads of whites, but to help them see why they behaved as they did, why they hated black people, why they were so easily manipulated by types like Trump.
The documentary does have one flaw: It says nothing about Baldwin's homosexuality. Aside from a single speculation in an internal FBI memo, there is not one word. Indeed, if you had no idea about Baldwin's life story or, say, his novel Giovanni's Room, you could easily leave the theater with the idea he was straight. This is disappointing because Baldwin's work is a product equally of American culture, black culture, and LGBT culture. And it's important that each of these elements in his literary brilliance be appreciated. To ignore one is to misunderstand the whole.
That said, there are sequences in this documentary, such as famous white American political figures apologizing for something wrong they have done (had an affair, broke the law, and so on), that are simply transcendent. If, like so many of us, you continue to be perplexed by America in 2017, this film is full of unsettling answers.
Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published.