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James Baldwin's Voice Lives On In New 'I Am Not Your Negro' Trailer
Upcoming James Baldwin Doc Gets Title, To Be Narrated By Samuel L. Jackson

'I Am Not Your Negro' Director Raoul Peck Talks Baldwin, Race And Hollywood

'I Am Not Your Negro' Director Raoul Peck Talks Baldwin, Race And Hollywood

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.

'I Am Not Your Negro' Director Raoul Peck Talks Baldwin, Race And HollywoodDid you create the film with a particular audience in mind? And if so what audience?

For sure, I wanted this film to be generic American, generic black Baldwin so that it could go in the rest of the world. Other than that, I think the film is for everybody, white and black. It’s probably more important for white than black, because most black people know a lot of this already. By their own experience. But a black audience will mostly say, “mmhmm.” But I saw white audiences being sucked by it, like, “oh my god, I never saw it that way.” When you’re on the right side, you don’t need to question yourself. That’s what people call white privilege: it’s everyday life. If you’re on the right, you never have to question the good that’s happening to you. It’s just normal. it’s how you grew up. You can’t go your whole life living in the dark and seeing it as normal.

So many documentaries now use the talking head format to explain what’s going on. Was there ever any concern that viewers wouldn’t be able to keep up?

I think it’s a political choice. All my life, I’ve made films I wanted to make. I never made a single film for money. My motivation was always, how do I make the world better? How do I make it more understandable? How do I bring all our voices to the forefront? How do I learn from our history and show where we come from? I have to avoid to be didactic. When I make a film like this, I want to make sure that the film will survive, that we can see it in 30 years and go into a story. If I was a journalist, it would be different. I would have a network behind me, saying “Raoul, people might not understand this and this.” I would have to address that. For this film, my concern is, yeah, you may not see this by the first viewing, but you’ll come back and find the other layer at some point. And if you watch the film 30 years from now, it will still have the same strength because you’re watching a story. You’re not watching a piece of news, you’re not watching a didactic thing. A didactic film, if you see it once, you’ve seen it - you don’t need to go back. It’s going to be boring. It’s too much information, you’re bombarded. This talks on so many different levels, so it’s you who connected or not to those levels. I make sure of course you get a few of them, so whatever level of what yourself, you bring into the story. Because you bring something too, into the story. You watch it a second time or third time, you see almost a completely different movie. Because you start paying attention to other stuff. By the third time, you’re relieved from all the other stuff, so you can concentrate on that particular part. That’s how you make a film richer, and that can resist time.

Did you find it difficult to expand on Baldwin’s opus, since it was only 30 pages?

No, because the work on the film, for me, is much more than those 10 years. It’s all the 30 years prior. So all the books that I underline, and all the ideas that are underlined that I put aside, all this came back on my table. What I need in those 30 pages was just a trick to go inside and tell the story. That was the organic reason that I needed. Once you’re in front of this incredible amount of work and gems, you better find a good way to tell your story. And not just didactic. You go into his own mythology and find the story in the story to tell it. I wanted this to be original, and for a filmmaker, what else is more original than to say, there is a book that was supposed to be written, it was never wrote . When I got it, everything came [snaps] pieced together. I say wow, he never wrote it, but knowing Baldwin, he was taking notes. I got those notes, and I got where he wanted to go. But then, I know most of his work. He wrote it - he just didn’t put it together. I had the whole work to go through and piece it together. That’s an idea that motivated me: I had the right line to follow. That’s what you need, as a musician or composer. You need that little thing, you can look for it for a long time. You can find it in a month, or you can find it in five years. When you have the luxury that I had, I was producing it myself, so I was my own master. It’s a luxury in our industry. The film is a very result of that. Otherwise, it’s an impossible film. Nobody will give you the money for that. Nobody will wait for you, that long. When I have that, I better make sure that when I come up with something, it has to be original, it has to be strong, it has to make sense as a whole body of work.

The First Definitive James Baldwin Documentary Is In The Works

The more things change, the more they remain the same. What do you think he would have thought about what’s going on today? There’s not been that big of a change, as far as people of color are concerned. We’re still the underdog.

Whatever the question could be about this country, the response is in the film. That’s exactly what the film is. It’s a response to what you’re seeing. He would say, you need to face it. As long as you don’t face it, nothing will change, fundamentally. You can change the cover, you can change the colors, you can change the style. You can invent a black middle class. Now what we need is the same access as the white, rich people. But that’s not the issue. The issue is inequality. The issue is justice. The black middle class can have wealth, but does it change fundamentally what the country is? Does it change the balance of power? Can a black Hollywood mogul decide, I want to make a big, hundred-million-dollar movie on James Baldwin, or Nat Turner, or Samuel Jackson or whatever? We can’t, so that means nothing has changed. Cosmetically, yes, there are rights and there are laws. But you cannot have laws, but all those laws respected. Whatever the question is, that’s what Baldwin is dealing with in the film. That’s what he’s telling us. It’s not about who will be the next black president, but what country he will be the president of. That’s the real question.

…[The film says] first of all, intellectually, historically, politically, know who you are. Know your history. In the film, you can also see it means also working. When Baldwin says, “I did not participate in marches, I did not participate in fundraising,” he’s telling you all you the things you need to know in terms of a movement. That’s the story of a movement, what he’s telling you. “I’m not confronting the sheriff every day, I’m a witness.” The witness is telling you what you need to do in order to have that fight. He’s telling not only to you, the fighter; the fighter is also telling to the other side, you need to do your homework as well. We need to wake up, in your world of ‘everything is OK.’ In your world of Hollywood mythology. In you calling me a nigger. You need to ask yourself, why did you need to invent that word, or invent that story? He addressed to everybody, everybody has a share in that movie.

That’s the way it will be, it can be, because there is no way that everybody is on side making his own battle. He is addressing exactly the right issue, and hoping it will not be a continue going in circle. That’s why, this film for me, Baldwin says it, and I also paraphrase it. If you don't see it today, 2017, seeing those words, reading those words again and again. If you don’t get it, well, you’re a monster and you’re an accomplice. You cannot be innocent today, after all those things. Baldwin said it in a way that, if you don’t react to that, that’s your own problem. But I’m not going to wait for you. For me, that’s an active stand that you’re taking, and it’s about time.

Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro is currently playing at select theaters around the country. Okayplayer is holding a special screening with Black Thought on Feb. 16. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed on okayplayer events in your area.