Oscar Nominated Director’s I’m Not Your Negro Shows That Writer James Baldwin Wasn’t
by Brad Balfour
Director Raoul Peck is not your typical filmmaker. Even though he has established a solid set of credits such as making the 2000 documentary Lumumba or his fictional 2005 narrative, Sometimes in April, the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, born Peck has had his share of political experience as well.
From March 1996 to September 1997, he was Haiti’s Minister of Culture. He’s currently also chairman of the French National Film School. A citizen of the world, Peck has lived in the United States, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. At eight years-old, Peck’s family fled Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorship and moved to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his agronomist father worked for the United Nations.
Born in 1953, this director and writer (Seven Stories Press published Stolen Images, Peck’s 2012 book of screenplays and images from his four major features and documentary films) lends his experience and gravitas to make I Am Not Your Negro, his award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary, worthy of the many accolades being bestowed on it.
The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award in the documentary category. Now, it’s a nominee for 2017’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, shared with Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck. Based on groundbreaking Black author James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, it explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s recollection of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through actor Samuel L. Jackson’s sonorous voice, Baldwin’s words come alive as Peck illustrates the interconnection of these important historic figures. An American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, the late scribe established his fiery views through such works as the non-fictional 1955’s Notes of a Native Son, and The Fire Next Time, and the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
Peck intends to continue his exploration of political thinking with The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx), his long-planned narrative feature. Starring August Diehl, the film explores the relationship between Marx and Frederick Engels as they develop their ideas about communism. It will premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
The following edit of this exclusive Q&A was recorded earlier this January.
What was the rationale in the timing of this film? It certainly coincides with a very interesting set of events in this country.
I was fortunate that I was able to make the film I wanted to make. Even those [that were] brought to me, I made sure that they were exactly what I wanted to make. You don’t [just] go into film. You don’t even know if it’s going to take three years or 10 years [so the timing might be coincidental]. The only thing you know, is, it better be fundamental. It better be strong. It better be original and whenever it comes out, so be it. [As long as] you are right in the way you do it, whatever the time… I’m not a journalist, so I’m not after whatever is the color of the day.
What’s a journalist to you?
Well, a journalist has to report whatever, or reflect whatever is in the actuality. Of course, you have some journalists who can sit back a little bit more and have a bigger picture which is rare. [Nowadays], it’s about the tweet.
In essence, you’re giving life to this Baldwin test. You can still be a journalist because you’re finding all this footage and other material and at the same time, your responsibility is ultimately to his words.
Of course, but I’m also an artist. If I make a work, I want to make sure that 30 years from now, somebody will watch the film and be able to get the same emotion. That’s why I have to tell a story. I have to create characters. It’s not deducted. It’s not just that I choose the words and put them out there and when you read them, you say, “Oh my God, it’s incredible.” I create a complex system where I play with you as well. As a filmmaker, we are great manipulators. I choose to manipulate you, but to make sure that you understand how I manipulate you. I just bring you the story. I just get you into the story. Why would not I do that when Hollywood does that the whole time for other purposes? I don’t sell popcorn. Hollywood does. It’s fair game. I make sure that I give you something that you will carry with you and that, again, 30 years from now, it’s a whole story with its own beginning, middle and end. I need to create that reflection.
You’ve just figured out a way to have us experience it because we never experienced the actual book. Not that I’m over-emphasizing Baldwin over your own creativity. It’s your dialogue with Baldwin.
It was also conscious for me to set myself in the background, because the project was, from the beginning, to put these words in the front row. The words have helped me throughout my life, words that are urgently needed today. That was part of the problem. I didn’t want any talking heads in the film. Nobody is an intermediary. It’s rare in documentary to also say, “The voice will be Baldwin’s voice. We’re going be inside his head.” The exercise for me was always to make sure I’m inside his head. I am him. It’s not about me. My job as an actor would be, “Let’s go into character.” Make sure that I’m always in character every minute of this film.
Was Samuel L. Jackson always your choice to voice Baldwin and was there work that needed to be done for him to get that voice down? It’s far from his normal, sometimes histrionic, Sam Jackson sound.
It was the result of many experiences I had, including my own films. One of my first films when I was beginning was a documentary on Patrice Lumumba where I used many voices until I decided I was going to do the voice myself. This is something I understood very early on and I never used the term “voiceover” or “narrator,” because once you use them, you’ve lost one of the most brilliant instruments in a film. What you have to create is a character. When you go to somebody and say, “I want you to be the voice,” you’re not asking them to read a paper or to interpret a paper. I was asking Samuel Jackson to do his work as an actor, to be the character and that’s what I asked of him. I said, “I don’t want to hear your great voice. No, I want you to study the character.”
He embodied that voice better than …
I had a shortlist of three or four names. Of course there is, I would say, a marketing aspect in it, in the terms that if this film will have a chance, I better have a big name attached to it. I had three names of very famous black actors. At the same time, it was not a random choice. I needed people who have some sort of personal street credibility. People who take a stand in their life. People who have taken on issues in their life, in their society, in their neighborhood or whatever, and people who have the voice of a real person. Samuel Jackson is one of those people. When I asked him, he was first on the list and because you can’t ask all the three, you go to number one and then go to the second, if the first one say no. He was at the my top list and said, “Yes.” That was great.
He did an amazing job.
I didn’t have to give him much direction besides what I just told you. I want you to feel whatever you’re saying every single minute of it. When we were recording, that’s what happened. Sometimes he would say something and even before I say it, he say, “Okay. I know. I know I’m doing it again” because it’s like music. You know when it’s not the right note. Once you understand the whole concept, you’re just playing the notes. It’s like jazz and you are improvising. I can’t tell him, “Sam, at the end of the phrase, I want you to lower your voice in a way to show some sort of …” How do you say it? “Some sort of emotion, so that I can use it for the next segments.” No. He has to feel it.
He understood it intuitively.
When you are in character, whatever you do is good.
He definitely channeled Baldwin. At least he had the reference of other audio to know whether he was on the money.
The words are very powerful.
The fact that you chose something at the end of Baldwin’s life, we have an overview of his whole universe. Even though you say it was a happy accident that it is now available to us at this point, in light of Trump’s election, it’s never been more relevant.
It’s not just a “happy accident.” There is a story. It’s mainly a political decision when 10, 11 years ago, I said, “It’s time to go back to Baldwin because of everything I’ve been experiencing around me.” It’s about the canonization of Martin Luther King, Black History Month, the Martin Luther King Day, the new Black bourgeoisie who is looking at this from a distance. There’s the black artists who look at this from a distance and once in a while when the anger is too much, they say something… But where are all the powerful organizations? How come this money doesn’t go to create a powerful organization? How come we still are begging for “Oscars Not So White?” This film comes out of all this. It’s not like a decision of, “I should do this.” No, it’s the result of many years of confrontation, of experience, of my own work. I didn’t just start making political films. Once you go into that, whenever you finish, it’s not important because you know that the fundamental issues are not going to change. I knew it was not going to change because of eight years of Obama.
That it’s not going to negate 400 years of…
It’s not the way countries change. By the way, Baldwin himself, there was a sentence in the film that we cut out but a journalist was asking, “What will it [mean] for you when this country will have its first black president?” He said, “It’s not a matter of who’s going to be the first negro president. The real question is what country is he going to be the president of?” That’s the real question.
They’re not going to let it go. They’re not going to let it go so easy.
Exactly. What it means is you need to face the reality, not the reality you think or not the story they told you, not the image that Hollywood fabricated. You have to be able to deconstruct everything all the time. It will never finish.
Do you think that your political experience makes you a better filmmaker?
There are people who… their whole life is politics and they have a one-sided view and that’s it. But so far, yes. Because politics was never dogmatic for me, politics was never about a party. I was never in a party. I supported certain parties. I worked with a certain party and went into politics the way we understood it, as a collective process. I didn’t go in as an individual who wanted to be a politician. I was asked to participate in a collective. It was a very important moment where we were really needed, and I did it. Most of my work is about power. It’s like you have been working with sharks all your life. Then one day, someone offers you to be able to live inside the shark. So you say, “Yes.” I wanted to go there. That’s what happened. I was taking notes everyday and seeing how power functioned. What I saw in Haiti as a minister, that’s what I saw in Bill Clinton’s cabinet, or in [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s cabinet. There was a similarity you can’t even imagine. Once you have people in a position of power, you see how they can abuse [it]. That also comes with it.
Do you think that what we have with Barack Obama is kind of thesis, antithesis. And then, we’re going to see a synthesis? That’s the Hegelian dialectic.
I would hope that the world is so scientifically constructed, and that would mean the world would be without human beings, who are never predictable. I’m very curious to see how far the backlash will come from this new president, but again, we are entering a process. We’re not entering a definite period of events. Every day, there will be a new item, new decision, new obstacles that will ultimately write the meaning of the whole history, including the resistance that it will provoke. History is not a passive thing. It’s whatever we will put on the table. Obama is a perfect example [of that]. If the people who elected him were half of the time also on the streets, 400,000, or one million demonstrating for healthcare, the healthcare bill would have passed in much better condition. It’s because again we became consumers of our votes. We vote. Then, we go home.
What this movie addresses, what Baldwin is addressing, is that kind of thing. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Have I done enough on the streets?
He gives you all the necessary things you need to build an organization when you say, “I was not part of this. I wasn’t part of that. I didn’t do fundraising.” He’s giving you the layouts. That’s what you do, and organizing is not something you do for fun, it’s not something you just do out of anger. Anger will just bring you so far. The rest is politics, organization and structuring.
How much did you methodically follow what he wrote or how much did you edit in your own terms?
Well again, as a filmmaker, it’s of course, a total construction. First of all, in Remember This House, what I took primarily was the idea of bringing those three men together. Telling of their friendship. Telling about their death. About how he felt about their deaths. About their roles. How he saw them as human beings. And their family. For me, that’s the red line of the film – that structures the film. The beginning of their relationship, they fight together, they are coming closer, their assassination. Those are the four big blocks. Within that then, I have the liberty to go to do a lot of things that were essential for me, but which are all Baldwin’s. That’s where I bring [in] my own choices. That’s where I get that. I knew it’s part of the story. My job was to put in the layers and make the film as rich as possible.
Baldwin also had the dual problem of being gay and being black in America at that time. He was always dealing with the betrayals that he felt or like that scene with the Kennedys and Lorraine Hansberry. They’re there but only up to a point. You brought those things to the fore. Those things were touch points. You show the dynamic, the continuum between Baldwin and all these people.
That is one of the themes of the film, but it’s not the only one. One of the themes is how do you break the mythology of America? I wrote in one of my introductions, when I was living in Brooklyn, going to public school, I remember in the living room where we were with a big family, [that had] a velvet rug with Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy [on it]. This was like, Christic, the three brothers. I did believe in that idea. I came from a Catholic family. I went to Jesuit schools and the idea [that] we are all [part of] the same human race. I grew up with that, but it’s not the truth. It’s not reality. Only a part of it is true, but that’s not what the reality is. The film is about deconstructing that whole thing. That’s why I do it, not only through the text ,but through the film as well. When I go into images and deconstruct them, I play with it. Black and white color, 8mm, 35mm, video and photos. It’s part of the construction.
The construction is very elegant; you have such an aesthetic sense.
That’s what I was supposed to do.
This film shows a kind of a diagram of doing that.
What the film does, it’s a mirror. I’ve told audiences in discussions, “Whoever of you in this room, white or black, you can’t go out now and say you didn’t know. You saw it, now it’s your decision. You can choose to ignore it, but you can’t say you didn’t know because this is obvious.” When Baldwin says, “Two worlds that never crosses.” This is it. This is reality. I’m not inventing it. I demonstrate to you that it’s there and how it came about. Now, you can choose. I’m going to continue my life as it is or I’m going to… as Baldwin said, “I’m going to face it.” We have a long life behind us. We have seen the world change.
So many people have joined the struggle just at a critical point where you need to go to the next level. I think Baldwin was also affected by that as well, with people seeming to be with you and then you lose them. You seem to getting people with you with the awards and all of that.
The award things, it can go both ways. Sometimes you can say, “Wow. How come I have all these accolades?” When I made this film, it was always with the intent of taking no prisoners. The film is a personal experience. To put the image of Doris Day next to a hanging woman, a lynching, you need guts to do that today. Any producer would have said, “Don’t do that.” It was a huge risk, but at my age, having most of my films behind me, that’s fine with me. Having all of these accolades is like, “Oh, where did I go wrong? How come everybody is…”
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 1, 2017.
Photo #1 by Brad Balfour © 2017
All other photos © 2017 Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.