'I Am Not Your Negro' Is a Brilliant Documentary About James Baldwin's Never-Finished Book
We caught up with director Raoul Peck to talk about the author's legacy, politics, and the ever-presence of history.
At the tail end of the 1970s, the decade in which the dreams of revolution that sparked a generation went to die, James Baldwin wrote to his literary agent in order to put forth an idea for a book that he would never complete. The unrealized book, tentatively titled Remember This House, would be an account of the lives and murders of three of his friends—Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X—who are the most revered martyrs of the civil rights causes. Baldwin only finished 30 pages of the proposed booked before dying of AIDS in 1987. Haitian director Raoul Peck, whose previous, wide-ranging work has engaged with the political assassination of a Congolese statesman (2000's Lumumba) and the Rwandan genocide (2005's Sometimes in April), reclaims James Baldwin's quest in his new documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
An Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, the 95-minute film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in Baldwin's words. It delves deep into the author's canon to erect, in bold cinematic terms, an audiovisual analog to the unfinished book. Leaning heavily on Baldwin's late-career film criticism, collected in The Devil Finds Work as much as the Remember This House manuscript, I Am Not Your Negro is a remarkable headlong rush into Baldwin's psyche and the nation's still-unresolved sicknesses of white supremacy and white fragility—the dueling things American liberals used to call, in Baldwin's day, "The Negro Problem." Peck combines archival material from popular films, the author's television appearances, and photographs of Baldwin alongside many of the contemporaries the film eulogizes. These sequences are juxtaposed with footage from more recent scenes of racial unrest, suggesting the continuum between events and eras. The director of as potent an exploration of America's irrational relationship with race as has ever been produced, Peck recently sat down with VICE for a conversation about his new film and the contemporary global political scene.
VICE: When did you first hear of Remember This House?
Raoul Peck: Oh, very late. I already had access to the rights. The estate had given me everything. I could use whatever I wanted. You ask for an option, and it's usually a one-year option that you can renew one, two, or sometimes a maximum of three times. And then they expect you to do the film and to buy the rights. I told them clearly that I didn't know what film it would be. I was experimenting between narrative and the documentary. I spent time with different authors trying to find the right axis, the right story.
Until, four years into it, I just decided the only way to go about it is to be very personal. To do a documentary and to give myself all the freedom I could—politically, artistically, on all levels, in terms of content, in terms of form. And then the question was how do I find the right entry point? How do I tell the film in a very original way, where it would be creative and where I would also feel inspired. That came through the form of these notes. I remember these that were given to me one day by Gloria Karefa-Smart—James Baldwin's younger sister. And that was it for me. That was the idea. The book that didn't exist, and then I said to myself, "Well it did, it's just all over the place of his body of work." So my job was to find it and to reconstruct that work in a very imaginative way, creative way.
And it gave me the excuse, beside those notes, to take out all the stuff about Baldwin that I loved all my life, all the books I had underlined, all the subjects. It gave me not only the freedom, but the access to everything because I could connect them.
It's interesting that you talk about those connections with his other works, his broader, his milieu. I was immediately thinking of The Devil Finds Work. The historical perspective that he engages film with—it's remarkable.
The Devil Finds Work is basically a deconstruction of how Hollywood—how the media, how literature—basically invented the "nigger," as you would say. It's all there. And this invention is linked with power. It's linked with economy. It's linked with history, and you have all that. So really reconstructing this book is at the same time an attempt to place Baldwin in all these different latitudes and levels and make a story out of it. And a story that would be the essence of all Baldwin.
"History is not the past. This story is the present."—Raoul Peck
One thing I think the film does marvelously is juxtapose footage of contemporary black liberation struggles and the work of past movements, with the sickness of contemporary life as a whole. There's that remarkable montage toward the end of reality television shows, talk shows, and Baldwin's words about how we're creating this false society, which somehow feels prescient in that moment.
The industry deals with this as they would deal with narcotic. But it connects those concerns to the past. It connects that society that we've created to avoid the truth to the tumult of the 1960s and of these three men's lives and Baldwin's relationships with them in that era. And history is not the past. This story is the present. That's an important statement. That means you say you are your history.
Did the new stuff that you shot in New York and in various places grow out of how you were responding to the archival material?
The idea itself was already there, and it was improved as we would go. There was an instance where people were watching and said, "Well, you need to give me a date here, so I understand I can follow." I said, "No. Where I want to go is that we can go back-and-forth without you asking me this question. And as long as you ask me this question, the edit is not where it should be."
We had a very clear idea of what we were looking for. My chief archivist was a French woman, but she knew the US very well. So she would search in the archive here, Library of Congress, and all the companies, but also we would do that in Germany. We would do that in Italy. We found footage about America that only existed on French television. And the idea was also to find images that people don't know that much. The civil rights era—you know those images. I didn't want to use those black-and-white images that we know so much. And people don't watch them anymore. Once you see them you say, "Oh yeah," and then you move on.
"Whatever the repression was 40 years ago, it's the same system, using just better tools."
Seeing, in a couple shots, an image turn from black-and-white to color again suggests this relationship between the past and the present. The continuity of history—your history is here and now. It's today.
That's why I play a lot of those images, because the subject is about creating images and where you don't know what is true and untrue and where color is a sign of modernity and black-and-white is old. And then I turn the images of Ferguson in black-and-white, so that, consciously or unconsciously, you react to that.
Whatever the repression was 40 years ago, it's the same system, using just better tools. But it's exactly the same thing. What it shows you, I hope, is that you need to find the proper response as well. The civil rights movement found a way to organize, and they were solid. Today we have movements, we have anger, we have spontaneous reaction. But are we solid enough to bring a response to what we are going through today? The film questions that, too.
What do you think, personally?
What I think is—it's not so much what I think—it's the facts, the facts of what: They killed most of the [civil rights movement's] leadership, or they bought them. When I say bought—they changed class, they became wealthy. Or their descendants became wealthy, or they became nobility. [Black sellouts] killed a lot of them. Some of them became crazy. Some of them are in exile. So the new generation has basically had no transition, and the few guys doing the transition are the first rappers. And then rap became commercial.
It's synonymous with capitalism.
Exactly. And on TV, the same thing. You could find some sort of, I would say, resistance in Soul Train or the black exploitation film. At the beginning, we thought wow, and then it becomes commerce again.
It's been argued that those films are empty catharsis.
Well, it simplifies stuff and gives you an idea. "Oh well, we are like the other, but we're just black." There is justice in that: This is a black bad guy and a white bad guy. We aren't used to having bad white guys.
Before those films, Baldwin actually talked around these issues in The Devil Finds Work, that black men are desexualized. And in Blaxploitation movies, they are hyper-sexualized.
There aren't black heroes that win, resorting to violence, hyper-violence. Even as belief in the viability of armed confrontation waned among black nationalist groups. And yet in that overreaction, perhaps, those films lost a chance to normalize the struggle for black liberation as well as the sort of lived in real experiences of working-class and middle-class African Americans.
You are right in the de-politicization, because what it said, basically, is [that] it keeps you in the black ghetto. It doesn't give you the big picture. It doesn't tell you that the problem is capitalism. The problem is class. The problem is poor on one side and the rich on one side
Or, as you suggest in the film via Baldwin's text, the NAACP was a classist organization.
Exactly, exactly. This is the dilemma now. By the way, I don't just see Black Lives Matter—I see Occupy Wall Street, I see many other movements that lost their momentum at the very moment when they needed to make the leap into politics. We are a civilization now where there is no more ideology. There is no more scientific truth. There is no more academic truth. Climate change exists, climate change doesn't exist.
You're a filmmaker who's taken on legacy subjects such as Patrice Lumumba's killing or the Rwandan genocide. This new film is very much about the life of a black American and the lived realities of black Americans. What do you think specifically allows you to inhabit, as an artist, these various spheres of pan-African storytelling?
They're not disparate—that's the thing. I was privileged very early on to start to see the connections. And I had decided very early on with the life I was having, the life my parents were having. The only way I can survive is to make sure wherever I am, I'm engaged. I'm in exile. This is something I never accept. I am where I live, you know? My father left Haiti in 1960. And I left in 1961. I was eight, and I went [to the Congo] with the image of Africa that I knew from American films—John Ford and all that. And I could swear to God that when I arrived I would see safari, I would see Africans dancing and smiling, and that's really what I thought. And that was one of the first shocks of my life. I grew up like this.
So it's part of my biography. And I think it's a freedom to never accept whatever other people say I should be. Baldwin said the same. He doesn't wake up and look at himself in the mirror and say, "Oh my God, I'm black, so I'm gonna act as a black man all day." You don't say that. When you grow up in the world, you think about the world. What can I do to change the world? What can I do to change my neighborhood? What can I do?
I have friends who were angry all of their life. I understand this anger. I understand, because it's frustrating. But then how do I tell them, yes, but what do you do? Are you going to do that all your life? Or beat the machine or try something else? Because that's what they want. They want to keep you angry.
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I Am Not Your Negro is now playing in theaters nationwide.