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I Am Not Your Negro: Interview with Director Raoul Peck

April 11, 2017

FilmReview | by Cormac O'Brien


I Am Not Your Negro is an intimate telling of the American Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of one of its greatest figureheads; renowned activist and author James Baldwin. Director Raoul Peck uses Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript ‘Remember This House’ as the platform to address his personal take on the dense and complex issue of race relations in North America. Peck envisions a possible finish to Baldwin’s work using a mammoth resource of archive footage and Samuel L Jackson on narration duties, creating something that is beautiful, rich in knowledge and poignant.

Connecting the past of the Civil Rights Movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter; I Am Not Your Negro details America’s racial tensions and how they’ve changed over the decades. The focus is always on Baldwin, but it also encompasses accounts by other movement leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The footage comprises archival images from private and public photos, film clips, Hollywood classics, documentaries, film and TV interviews, popular TV shows, TV debates, public debates and contemporary images. It is all presented in kaleidoscopic, poetic montage very much in-line with Baldwin’s own very unique style.

Baldwin is an idiosyncratic figure, from his activism to his forthrightness, his immense talent to his openness. He had an unrivalled understanding of politics and history and, above all, the human condition. Interview segments with Baldwin are a testament to his passion, clarity of thought and impeccable articulation. A perfect spokesman for the civil rights movement, his own personal experiences of racism eloquently convey the African American experience. Even though his words are frequently harsh, it feels that his purpose is not to condemn or punish anyone, or victimize himself for that matter.

Jackson’s familiar voice, frequently interrupted by Baldwin’s impassioned speeches and interviews, seams together effortlessly while yellow tinged black and white pictures merge with Hollywood movie scenes and back again to archive news footage. We’re privy to stand-out archival sequences including the young black Dorothy Counts as she confronts a large, aggressive, white mob on her way to school and Baldwin’s emotional address on the Dick Cavett Show on the array of Sidney Poitier’s cinema roles.

Nominated for an Academy Award at this year’s Oscars, I Am Not Your Negro is an outstanding piece of documentary; immaculately presented with a gargantuan topic to tackle; Peck manages through Baldwin to successfully tell his personal story.

Candid Magazine recently met Peck in London and this is what he had to say:

The documentary is a beautiful, yet deeply insightful piece of work. What was your personal impetus to create it?

Like most of my films this isn’t a decision that I took out of the blue. It’s about what I feel, how politically engaged I am on the topic, how necessary it feels for me to say something.

Baldwin has always been a formidable force in my life. He helped me see through the connections of my own personal history, as part of the bigger story. I wanted to know where I belong. Baldwin helped me understand that I can’t accept any definition of who I should be imposed on to me. My motivation is how do I make these realisations available to a wider audience, to a younger generation, as I feel that is what’s lacking now; the elements of analysis. Like for example: what got us to this point in history to have Trump as president? Baldwin said you should know and own your history and act upon it. Don’t just sit there and swallow everything in a lethargic state and let history dictate your life again and again.

There are protest footage scenes in the film by white people opposing the Civil Rights Movements, which are quite jarring to watch. Do you think that extreme sentiment is as prevalent now as it was then?

That extreme does still exist. I will always remember at Obama’s first speech at the State of The Union Address, one white congressman yelled at him ‘You lie’ in front of everyone. Such violence at such a sacred moment in US politics. Baldwin often spoke about the vast cruel majority who don’t say anything being perhaps the worst…. their lack of empathy. People see the ugly face of racism, the obvious blatant acts of cruelty. What makes Baldwin’s work so powerful, is that he addresses the real culprit; the people who watch things happen and don’t do anything about it. Baldwin forces you to see the reality in his very own humanistic way; telling you how he sees it. You can choose not to see it, but it’s still there.

Interestingly though Baldwin never comes across as a victim but also doesn’t come across as vindictive either. Would you agree?

There are several dimensions to that. Baldwin did say many damaging words; his condemnation of the Western civilisation; questioning its moral legitimacy. He claimed that the last 400 years; so much wrong was done in the disguise of morals, civilisation and education. American civilisation as we now know it; is built on two genocides; slavery and the massacre of the Native Indians. Baldwin often referred to the Marxist analysis that ‘white’ is a metaphor for power. Those are harsh words.

On the other hand; you as a viewer feel Baldwin’s sincerity; his eloquent manner and it’s all based on his real-life experience. He doesn’t talk from an intellectual vantage point, but from personal experience. You see it in the way he expresses himself; the way he talks, the movement of his body; his eyes; his face, you feel his suffering. He spoke from the point of you of a humanist; didn’t care if you were white, black or whatever; it’s not about any black agenda, he was way beyond that. He talks of the responsibility as human beings to take care of each other.

The documentary despite its loaded and complex subject matter feels intimate, almost calming.

Baldwin has that effect on you. I am glad that the film catches that. It’s an intimate conversation, that’s the way we staged the narration. The only direction, I gave Samuel is “that you are telling it to your friend who is sitting next to you”.  He is not projecting. It’s a conversation, a dialogue, an exchange. That’s what you felt. The person in front of you is not insulting you, he is looking through you. He doesn’t see your colour, what you have done or not done. Baldwin is rare human being. Yes, he did say harsh things but he was also very understanding; as well as charismatic, captivating and articulate. He was almost magical. I see it with the documentary’s audiences; their reaction to it, we have seen a lot of people come back to see it again.

We know about Baldwin’s sexuality and that he was prominent gay activist. There is very little mention of this in the documentary.

There are three mentions to be precise. The film is me trying to reconstruct the book. I didn’t specifically choose what to do with it per se; it’s what the manuscript sets out (Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript ‘Remember This House’). Yes, there was no footage where he openly says ‘I’m gay’, but it’s not about an omission. I did not force anything in the documentary. I excluded the presence of talking heads, all I had was archive footage and the text. With great modesty, I tried to tell the story that Baldwin, wanted to tell. Not misuse or misinterpret anything more than he wanted to say. A few critics said that I didn’t want to talk more about his gayness. That isn’t the case. That’s not the issue. It wasn’t about my own respective agenda. I worked with what I was given.

It’s funny to think, that he was the guy, that wrote Giovanni’s Room, in 1956. Such a daring book for the time.

Well that’s exactly it, he did it in a way that nobody else would have done, at the time. A gay novel, about a mixed couple in the 50s? You would get killed for that. And he did it! Why should all that be that be put into the documentary as something of a gay token? I think it was more elegant to trust the people’s intelligence. I felt it was more ironic, poetic, beautiful to imply it rather than mentioning all the FBI files they had on him with all these sordid details. I felt that mentioning all that would be too aggressive and one wonders where they got all their information on him from. When you show something in a natural way; like when he says “I was in Puerto Rico with Lucien”, that’s enough: you know he was with his boyfriend. I feel it’s wrong to believe; because you have a flag you make a statement; if you say things naturally it becomes a fact and that’s better than a statement.

Words By Daniel Theophanous

I Am Not Your Negro is in cinemas now.