James Baldwin, in a photo provided for the documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
Raoul Peck spent ten years tweaking what was already perfect. The director grew up as an avid reader of James Baldwin: the black, queer, Harlem-bred writer whose books, essays, and other works depicted sharp, uncompromising critique on the roles of race, class and sexuality in the United States during the middle of the 20th century. His analyses have endured just as the injustices that he critiqued, and Peck knew that he had something powerful to say. Baldwin’s family generally doesn’t give access to such work, but Peck says that Baldwin’s younger sister Gloria Karefa-Smart was impressed by his film Lumumba and granted him access to everything: notes, unfinished and finished screenplays and theater plays, and more. Peck’s idea: expand on an unfinished 30-page manuscript by Baldwin that looked into the lives and assassinations of leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, while giving more rumination about race in the United States.
Most modern documentaries employ a variety of pundits to provide context and walk the viewer through history. But with I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s voice is all that’s necessary. Peck goes through painstaking measures to make sure that Baldwin’s words (read pensively by actor Samuel Jackson) are the only ones read during the film, with the only exceptions being video footage of Baldwin himself speaking in lectures or TV show panels. Baldwin’s insight, observations and recollections of his times with the aforementioned leaders and their families are the focus, and the visuals are largely the same things that he (and Peck) saw: traumatic news footage, and a seemingly eternal stream of racist images in Hollywood. By avoiding the extra frills, viewers are treated to the stark clarity of Baldwin’s words virtually exactly as he wrote them. And the same issues that activists and survivors deal with now, Baldwin mulled over or fought against back then: questions about the efficiency of protesting, and ignorant demands for black people to be grateful for incremental progress.
The film took ten years to make, but it’s impossible to watch this without the context of an election that was won based on (or despite of) blatantly racist, intolerant rhetoric. Weeks before I Am Not Your Negro earned an Oscars nomination for Best Documentary, Peck spoke with a group of reporters about the film’s creation and what the late Baldwin has to say in 2017.
Were you attempting to primarily make this a continuation of his 30 pages? Or was it something that you wanted to involve the contemporary issues and elaborate more on the political issues of racial tension, and basically in his own mind or where you were coming from yourself?
Baldwin is somebody who has been with me all my life. I read him very early on, I was probably 16 or 17, and he never left me. There are very few authors who are that important in your life, and Baldwin is one. I ask young people, do you read Baldwin? If they say no, I say, well then read him first then we can have a conversation. Because you can’t not have not read Baldwin if you’re a black person, or if you’re somebody who is trying to understand what this country is – and by the way, what the rest of the world is. So for me, it was always about when do i find a way to bring it back. I saw over the years, I was a young man toward the end of the civil rights movement, and I saw how most of our leaders had been killed, imprisoned, or went into exile, or bought through different ways. We lost the tradition of engaging, we lost the traditions of organizing. We thought that when we had black history month that we made it, that we don’t need to do anything. So I felt it was time for Baldwin to just come back, please come and help us. In the film, there was a sentence we cut out, where Baldwin was just saying, “we really need a Malcom now.” I use it, like, we really need a Baldwin now.
…It was a huge risk, because you’re making a film not only about the man, but about his thinking, and you try to make it from the inside of his head. There are no talking heads, there is nobody explaining anything to you. It’s really the man talking to us: blunt, raw, and direct. So taking that risk, because I had to make sure that I am not talking as a filmmaker. We are a great many purities, we can do a lot of things: how you do an edit, how you do a cut, are you turn down the music, or you make a choice. Every one of your choices is a manipulation, potentially. So I had to modestly put myself or my ego in the background and make sure every single decision is Baldwin. You know you can do that, not by only knowing his work, but having some sort of complicity. I learned of him very early on, so my own life experiences also being abroad a lot of the time, looking back at this country from the outside and also being inside. I grew up in Brooklyn public schools, I learned the jokes, you know how young people can be tough. So I went through that, the whole drill. I woke up to Soul Train, with all those things. I felt him very organically. And at the same time, when I’m outside I can look here with a distance. I say sometimes the film project was 10 years, but in fact it was longer than that. It’s my own biography, my own confrontation with the images of Hollywood. Tarzan.
Before I went to Congo as an 8-year-old boy, I was already infested with those images of this white man in a cloth and black African with their picks. And that’s how, I when I arrived at the airport, I was going to welcome by all these savages. Very early on, I started deconstructing whatever I was seeing. Hollywood is great for that because you know as a young boy you don’t want to be the Indian when you’re playing, you want to be the cowboy. … Imagine a young person watching that, you get all the subliminal messages. You might not be able to integrate it or understand it, but layers after layers, that’s what you get. You are mystified by stuff that are not you, and that you believe are you at some point. Reading Baldwin is like rediscovering your own history, and that’s why the film is confrontation with each one of us. You don’t just watch the film, you unroll your whole existence, your whole belief. White and black can have the same confrontation.