In an era when civilized discourse has gone the way of the flip phone, novelist, essayist and playwright James Baldwin–as heard and seen in Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro–is an ambassador from a lost time. The movie imagines an ambitious book Baldwin never completed, a work tracing the lives and legacies of his closest friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Peck obtained the manuscript notes from Baldwin’s estate and wove them into a compelling minihistory of black identity in America.
I Am Not Your Negro captures all that was galvanizing and forceful about Baldwin. The language in the film is his own–Samuel L. Jackson reads the manuscript excerpts–and it resonates, sometimes painfully, today. “I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country,” Baldwin said in a 1963 TV appearance. The words my country are the clincher. Even if the place you will always call home doesn’t have the power to break you, there’s no guarantee it will never break your heart.
This appears in the February 27, 2017 issue of TIME.
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