Raoul Peck on I Am Not Your Negro & James Baldwin

Ahead of the UK release of I Am Not Your Negro, the extraordinary doc on writer and activist James Baldwin, we speak to director Raoul Peck about Baldwin's enduring relevance, experimenting with documentary form and the troubling rise of ignorance

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 04 Apr 2017

In such troubled times as our current moment, where Western society seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past by stalling or demolishing progress in various forms, it is important to take heed of the words of those whose commentary has only become more relevant with time.

The late James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, political activist and social critic, best known for his articulations of the unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual and class tensions in Western societies. Being both black and gay gave Baldwin an insight into very specific experiences, but Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, himself a political activist, believes that Baldwin’s words resonate beyond race and sexuality.

“Baldwin is, at core, a humanist,” says Peck. “He’s speaking to you; he’s not speaking to you as white, yellow or whatever. He’s speaking to you as a human being, because that’s who he is at the core. He doesn’t judge, but he tells you what he has to tell you. You don’t feel insulted, you just take it. He’s like your priest talking to you and telling you a very hard thing, and you do listen to him because he’s credible, he’s respectful. So it’s hard to get away; it’s hard to find excuses because he’s so convincing. And people do listen.”

We meet Peck a few weeks before the UK release of his Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a recent Oscar nominee and, at the time of writing, the highest-grossing independent film of 2017 so far over in the States. “It’s going well,” he says upon receiving our congratulations. “We’re breaking all records for documentary. I didn’t have that in mind when I made the film.” The 63-year-old filmmaker has been particularly heartened by the audience response. “People go to see it three times, four times. And all the Q&As I did, the people are very involved, touched, whether white or black. People feel concern and the film forced them to reflect on their own life or the way they see the world; the way they see the other, whoever that other may be. It’s rare that a film can get that kind of overwhelming reaction.”

Granted unprecedented access to the Baldwin estate, Peck’s film, in gestation for a decade, focuses on bringing to the screen Baldwin’s words from an unfinished manuscript of only 30 pages called Remember This House, which was to be about the legacies of civil rights figures Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were assassinated. Eschewing a traditional talking heads format, Peck’s documentary offers no outside input or interpretations of Baldwin the man, or his work. He instead presents an extended montage of images of black life in America across multiple decades, from films before Baldwin’s heyday to footage of today’s Black Lives Matter protests. Scoring all of these is the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, playing Baldwin rather than narrating, reciting the man’s words from various key texts.

On the subject of avoiding certain documentary tropes, Peck is particularly passionate: “All my life as a filmmaker I’ve always tried to ask myself, with each film, how can I go further? And further not only in the content but also in the form. Filmmaking for me, one of the important aspects of it is to be part of film history and to bring my own discovery, or research or experiment, while making films. I’m gonna use a big word, but to revolutionise the form. It’s always, what can I do differently? When I said no talking heads, this is something I used to try to avoid, but sometimes the material, at one point, doesn’t let you. But this one, this time, I could hold on to it.”

Peck's film splices together images of the present with Baldwin's decades-old text, taking the writer from social commentator of his period to something of a prophet regarding the 21st century. “I don’t read Baldwin, I study Baldwin,” Peck says of the man’s evergreen relevance. “He’s somebody you go back to. He’s like an incredible philosopher; he’s an incredible political analyst. You want to form your mind about Israel or Jerusalem, there is a small essay Baldwin wrote about Jerusalem and in that small essay you have everything about that country. This is what he does. On any given topics you can go back and say, 'Oh, let me see what he wrote about it.' He was always doing much more than current news or current reporting.

“He changed me from the beginning,” Peck continues, “and I’ve used his instrument my whole life. That’s how I would put it. His way of deconstructing everything, this is something I learned from him as well. The way he deconstructs the fabrication of the black image in Hollywood, you can apply that to many other subjects, or races. He gives you the fundamentals, which is, well, film is not innocent. It transports ideology, transports culture, transports commerce. Once you know that, you can apply it to anything else, to any sort of art.”

Considering his reverence for Baldwin, we ask Peck whether he considers any current public figures, artists or activists, as approaching that same sort of level. “No, because you can’t create that. It’s always the result of history. I don’t think we have spokesmen at the level of Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. And you can imagine those men, who were killed before they were 40, what it would have meant if they went until 60 or 65. Those guys were incredible human beings. Most of the leadership of the civil rights movement were killed. So today, to say who could replace them, I don’t see that. And, by the way, you could say the same about any white intellectual.

“Today, everything has been so separated in expertise that you don’t find the kind of wide-range erudition that people used to have 40 years ago: somebody who was a great philosopher but knew about music; knew about literature; knew about macrophysics; a lot of different disciplines. You have a lot of people today that are very specialised, very sharp in whatever they have been studying for 40 years, but are totally ignorant of the rest of what’s going on around them.

“I’m very worried about the rise of ignorance in our societies; in the Western world. We are facing a world of decadence, but we don’t see it and we don’t want, also, to acknowledge it. There is a lot of denial, but I have seen the change in the last 30, 40 years.”

“Take politics,” he adds. “We have never seen such deterioration. Take Britain; take somebody like Churchill, now look who we have [Theresa May]. This is a catastrophe. Look at Trump. You go from people like Eisenhower and Roosevelt, and you have Trump today. He’s incapable of writing a text. I’ve never heard of Trump writing a text. That’s something I just realised, because I know there are those incredible speeches of Roosevelt, but I don’t think Trump can write anything that makes sense. So this is where we are.”

In closing, we point out that Trump can definitely type, at the very least. “Yeah,” Peck replies with laughter, “140 characters.”

I Am Not Your Negro is released 7 Apr by Altitude

To accompany the release, the French Institute in Edinburgh is screening six of Peck’s previous films throughout Apr and May:
Lumumba, 25 Apr
Haitian Corner, 26 Apr
Le Profit et rien d’autre (The Profit and Nothing Else), 10 & 24 May
Lumumba, la mort du prophète (Lumumba, the Death of a Prophet), 10 & 24 May
L’Homme sur les quais (The Man on the Shore), 16 May (followed by a talk by Rachel Douglas) & 31 May
Moloch Tropical, 17 May