Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel’s review published on Letterboxd:
My first college level course in film was called "The Art of Film: Celluloid Visions." Our second paper had to be a discussion of how aesthetics illustrated themes in a short non narrative film. I don't remember every film that I watched before settling on Un Ballet Mecanique, but I remember watching a film that has stuck with me because at the time it raised my ire. I don't know the title of it sadly although maybe one of the cinephiles that follows me can unearth it because I would like to rewatch it. The film was a disjointed and messy documentary about the documentarian's history with abuse, her childhood, and her love of baseball. At the time, because the film was missing the structural and aesthetic techniques that I had grown accustomed to, I found it an unpleasant watch.
Watching IANYN, I thought of that film, The Watermelon Woman, and the famous Audre Lorde quote, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." The aesthetics on play in Raoul Peck's documentary are so dated and so steeped in established white traditions as to do little to add to James Baldwin's words and even detract from them at points. Like several other people, I feel like watching an hour and half of James Baldwin simply talking would've been a better film. I should rewatch The Watermelon Woman soonish. I still struggled with its design, and I think it is because truly out of the box style is still hard for me to wrap my head around.
Casting Samuel L Jackson to do the narration is probably the film's biggest misstep. He delivers Baldwin's words with a baritone gravity that eliminates all of their playful, ascerbic wit. I'm surprised to say I agree with Armond White in 2017, but I agree with Armond White. The use of Jackson plays into white expectations for these topics, not only because he is the most famous black actor working today in all likelihood but also because his somber reflective tone is exactly what white guilt seeks to assuage itself without radical action, a feeling of having participated in something important.
Casting someone controversial to do the narration such as Kevin Hart, on the other hand, would both come closer to capturing the humor and ascerbic wit of James Baldwin but also mirror the real world dissonance that the gravity with which these issues are discussed does not at all match the gravity with which they are acted upon. Like Justin Simien's Dear White People, this film has every right to be better than it is.