A report by Charlie Schmidlin for The Creators Project.
Forthright, nimble, and unrelenting in his accounts of social and racial injustice, the ideas of iconic author James Baldwin will stay evergreen as long as relevant patterns repeat. Any number of passages from his published work hit a vein with the issues of today, but a new film does exactly that with a twist: it uses one of Baldwin’s unfinished books to create a documentary, political essay, and biography all at once, as well as a vulnerable vision of how Baldwin saw his place among his peers.
Drawing from Remember This House, an unfinished manuscript of Baldwin’s that examined the deaths of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., the film I Am Not Your Negro cuts straight to the source. Director Raoul Peck uses Baldwin’s words exclusively with the voice talents of actor Samuel L. Jackson, who adopts an uncharacteristic, weary tone to match the material.
“This film is like a warning, a last chance,” Peck explains to The Creators Project. “It’s Baldwin saying, ‘As long as we don’t touch these core problems around the so-called American Dream, we can’t have a common future.’”
He continues, “When I finished the film, I thought it would go nowhere because it was too violent in what it’s saying. But to have Baldwin, who had the guts to use those words—nigger, negro—and say exactly what they are, that’s powerful. Those are invented words, and he did not invent them, white people did. He said, ‘I did not invent Jim Crow or slavery. You invented something that they’re afraid of. I give you your problem back.’”
Growing up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti until his family fled the Duvalier dictatorship to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961, Peck has built a decades-long film career focused on power, politics, and social injustice. He’s jumped back and forth from documentary to narrative, tackling the life and death of Patrice Lumumba—the DRC’s first independent Prime Minister—in both formats (Lumumba), in addition to covering the complex aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake (Fatal Assistance). But even though James Baldwin’s work spoke of the political climate on a different continent, Peck always found the author’s words to strike a personal chord.
“I read him when I was 16 or 17 years old, and he framed me,” Peck says. “He structured my brain in a way where I learned how to question things. I learned whatever the material—film, literature, news—to not to just see the surface but all the different layers below it.”
Ten years ago, Peck first envisioned making a film about Baldwin, and as luck would have it, Gloria Baldwin [the family member that runs Baldwin’s estate] knew the director’s work and agreed to give him complete access to Baldwin’s archives—a dream scenario. At first, the project took on a more traditional biopic approach, but Peck soon felt that putting artifice on top of Baldwin’s text felt wrong. Within the archives though, the 30 pages of Remember This House stood out. “I knew I had a story with that,” Peck says. “I decided I could push the words to the front, but I needed that whole process of elimination to slowly reach the core of the film and find the right form to go with the content.”
Peck divides I Am Not Your Negro up into chapters, each drawing on a specific theme or aspect of Baldwin’s worldview. Blending newsreel footage, Baldwin’s televised appearances (like his Dick Cavett interview or Yale debate with William F. Buckley), and modern-day media, he frames callbacks across time of political rhetoric and social unrest. In one section, police brutality and the rise of Black Lives Matter takes center stage, as Peck does earlier with the ingrained racism in Hollywood’s past.
Hollywood is a topic that Baldwin covered in great length in his long essay The Devil Finds Work. Peck illustrates these ideas with expertly chosen film clips: Stagecoach, King Kong, Billy Wilder’s Love In The Afternoon, and others go under the microscope, intercut with the harsh reality occurring outside the cinema. The Defiant Ones, a chain-gang drama starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, especially stands out as a defining point in Baldwin’s life, as the author noticed black and white audiences react differently to a scene in which Poitier’s character gives up escape to stay with Curtis. It’s a shock of multiple perspectives on the same reality that Peck noticed early on in his life.
“In Port-au-Prince there were at least seven drive-in cinemas, so it was really something to go to during the week,” Peck says. “I grew up on American films starring John Wayne and Tarzan, and the idea about Africa given to me was a bunch of savages living in the forest, and then this white guy in underwear running everything. So when I went to Congo at the age of eight, I thought there would be natives dancing around the airplane. I really did. After that I knew there’s something wrong here.”
Though he may have felt hesitation over whether the film would even find distribution, Peck is now keenly aware of the zeitgeist landscape into which his film is coming out. With #OscarsSoWhite trending at this time last year, and this week finding a slew of black-led films in the running (including I Am Not Your Negro), the mistake could be made of letting up on the issue. But Peck says he spots the harmful routine.
“This country knows perfectly how to deal with this problem,” he says. “They make a fake discussion, saying, ‘Oh, there are a lot of black movies this year.’ But what role did I play in that? I didn’t ask permission ten years ago to start this movie, it’s just by chance that it comes out this year. The real question that’s hidden is ‘Who decided to greenlight the movie?’ As long as we don’t have a black person, or openly gay person, that has power to greenlight a $100 million movie, the power is not shared. Down the line it’s always about power, and who has the power to tell the story. Everything else is just discussion.”