James Baldwin passed away in 1987. Well, that’s partially true. He indeed succumbed to stomach cancer at age 63, but most of his life essence remained, via his books and essays deconstructing American culture. Filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Sometimes in April) has been a Baldwin devotee since reading The Fire Next Time at 16, which he credits with “changing my life.” Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on a book project Baldwin abandoned, splices images of the present with decades-old text, transforming Baldwin from a late social commentator from the Civil Rights era to a breathing 21st-century prophet of man. Peck spoke with us about his now Academy Award–nominated film and his thoughts on American race relations.
How did you come across the unfinished Baldwin piece, "Remember This House," and why did you use it as the narrative of the film?
I was in constant exchange with Gloria Baldwin, his younger sister, who was herself involved with the sorting of the archive. One day she gave me those 30 pages and said, “You'll know what to do with these.” I said, “My God!” For a [Baldwin] project that did not happen to include Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the biggest, important people in the movement, and the project was the story about America through the lives of all three, who were assassinated — this as an idea is incredible. That this book was not written — I felt with this film, it needs to be written. I knew I didn't need any people to tell his story. It's his book.
You used Samuel L. Jackson to read Baldwin’s text. What was your direction to him? He doesn't sound like himself or Baldwin.
The only direction I can give to an actor, a good actor who knows his skills, is “here are those words. They're yours. Make them yours. Don't tell the text but be the text.” That means you have to be the emotion of the text. Sam Jackson said something very touching a few days ago in L.A. He said, “These words are not foreign to me. I grew up in the South. I know what it is to leave your family and want to come back.” He made those words his because he could relate to them. The emotion was not fake; he was the emotion and he was the character called Baldwin. So he didn't need to mimic him.
You have these montages of modern-day white political figures apologizing after Baldwin talks about immaturity being an American virtue, and another with Black teens being killed over the past 10 years. Knowing Baldwin saw this coming through the film text, how distressing was it to incorporate those images?
It was a strange feeling. It wasn't like I was just discovering that violence. I knew that already. So those killings happening were not so much new as the fact that we couldn't see images of them before [on television, social media, etc.]. This is the story, but it wasn't new. So the fact it was becoming more and more visible gave me a sense of urgency, but it didn't change much. My goal was to put this in the hands of the new generation. How do I make sure that the people in the Black Lives Matter movement know that there's a history behind us? There is a way to fight.
Baldwin was nomadic. As a man born in Haiti, raised in Africa, educated in France, Germany and New York City, do you relate to him?
That's something I see as a privilege. What travel does is show you quicker all the authorities of those systems. I grew up in Haiti for the first eight years of my life and my family and me would go to drive-ins and see movies, and the American movies were giving me a sense of the world … and I believed in that world. When I went to Congo, I discovered that the Africa that I would see in Safari, in Tarzan and all those jungle type of films was not the reality. When I came to Congo, I thought I would see savages from the airplane, and that was not the case.
Baldwin's repeated analysis of Black and white imagery in movies throughout the documentary makes so much more sense now that you’ve explained that you shared in that experience — seeing film as political propaganda, so to speak. I still see it today.
One of the white critics who interviewed me said, “I know I will never be able to see Patriots Day the same ever again,” because [Baldwin’s words] force them to see the other reality as well. Same as La La Land. All the Woody Allen movies — never uses a Black character, but [the audience] accepts it as normal. I think there are certain subjects [in films] that when it's not specifically Black, there's no need [to have Black characters]. But at the same time, there's no need to exclude them either. A Black character is much more than just a Black character; he's a character, period. So show the world as it is, even with all your artistic license, you make a political choice.
The film ends with Baldwin stating the white man must figure out why he needed [to invent] a nigger in the first place. However, he doesn't offer any solutions. He forces us to think it through for ourselves.
He's saying something to us, too, Black people. He's saying he needs to stop feeling that we are the problem — we are not that problem — and also to stop feeling that we are just Black. We are much more than that. He said, “White is just a metaphor for power.” Where does that leave us? When you stand up in the morning, you look in the mirror and say, “I'm Black.” No. You wake up and you see yourself as a human being in the world, but you raise discussion and raise aggression, the anger that you confront every day of your life, whether you want to or not.