Next week, director Raoul Peck's Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro arrives in theaters. Built around the words of Remember This House, an unfinished Baldwin manuscript that focuses on the writer's friendships with the martyred civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the film presents Baldwin's unsparing critique of race relations in America. Samuel L. Jackson voices Baldwin's words and Peck draws significantly upon archival footage, including contemporaneous interviews with Baldwin.
Gothamist recently spoke to Peck about the origins of the film, the role Hollywood plays in shaping our racial consciousness, and the urgency of Baldwin today.
Can you describe the history of the project?
All the films I've made started from events in my life. I was privileged to start reading Baldwin very early on in life and through this I had the privilege of finding out who I was and what place I had in society—whether at home or here in the United States.
If I can summarize the essential part of Baldwin, it is the ability and obligation to always question whatever truth is put in front of you. Beginning with images, beginning with stories, beginning with cinema. This is something that I learned very early on. And he gave me the words and the instruments to do that, to be able to deconstruct whatever was put in front of me—ideology, stories, narrative—very concretely.
That's linked to what we're still experiencing today, with "Hollywood so white." It's about your own story, your own history, and your place in the society. And the fundamental fact is that the history of America was never the history that really happened. It was an invented history, narrated by the conqueror.
So what I really learned is to ask the question, "Where am I in the picture?" The film is a deconstruction of that narrative.
Baldwin says, "If I'm not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you've got to find out why." It's switching the responsibility. Politically, this is important because what it basically says, "I don't want to be alone in the burden of racism or bigotry or homophobia in this country."
Cinema is such a powerful thread that runs through I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin talks about viewing the contradictions of America through cinema and you make extensive use of old film clips...
Something that makes me close to Baldwin is that my own image mythology is the same. That's the power and the strength of Hollywood—it went all over the world. No matter where I was, I watched American movies. They were the dominant form of cinema.
So, I could dip into my own mythology, into my own book of memories and understand exactly, frame by frame, what Baldwin said and thought about the impact of those images on our narrative, on our understanding of who we are.
Reading Baldwin was not so much a discovery about what I already knew. But I learned that it was not only me thinking that. It was not only me feeling that, "Wow, John Wayne killing Indians, there is something wrong in that picture." Baldwin put it in a form that was philosophically and politically bold, but the feeling itself was already in me.
I don't think I ever watched a movie without being totally immersed in the story. But at the same time, I had to keep some distance from it. I had to question what the narrative was trying to tell me or was injecting in my brain. This is a sort of healthy relationship with narrative, with stories, that I think most minorities, most people who don't see their own image on the screen, have developed. Women as well.
As long as you are in that white privilege bubble, you don't need to see the world differently. You don't need to see the world through the eyes of minorities or women.
You include a clip of The Pajama Game and juxtaposed with the language of the film, the whiteness of it becomes blinding. I'll never be able view the film the same way.
There was an extraordinary piece by Shannon Houston exactly about that. As an audience, you can never be innocent anymore after watching the film. You cannot say, "I didn't know." You cannot say, "I know but it's not that important." You are obliged to confront it.
Imagine a film critic at the time of The Pajama Game. He saw the same film as I did, or as Baldwin did, but he never felt obliged to see that there is something else that this movie is saying. It's obvious today when we look back, but the same movie, at the time, was felt differently by different people.
How important is Baldwin in this historical moment?
I think we should take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Baldwin is so current and so impactful today because he went to the major structural problems in this country. He touches on the fact that we do not share the same history. The American dream is not the same for everybody—and, by the way, this dream is built on two genocides. It's a lie.
And that's the lie that we have been saying and showing again and again. We are living in a constant Pajama Game. Nothing has fundamentally changed. The token black film here and there will not change it.
What was your research process for finding and selecting archival footage?
I knew from the beginning that I would have to come up with images that people would not feel, "Ok, I saw that already." The film is about the making of images and all that it takes to make those images—not only technically, but also aesthetically and politically.
I always knew that I had to be very precise, that I had to come up with images that would convince the audience to watch. There are different devices for that. In most of the photos you see, the subject is looking straight at you. This is part of the device: how do I create this exchange between the subject and the person watching? And not teach, but show that we do not alway see what we are looking at.
Everybody working on the film knew to come up with whatever will make that difference—will keep us busy really watching and not just saying that we have seen it before. I looked in archives in the U.S., but also Europe and elsewhere. A lot of European TV stations sent people to the South to report.
I also use colorizing of some archival footage. Because every year we have the same Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day, so children today see it in school. I know how it is, "Oh yes, I saw it last year, so I don't need to watch it again this year." I have to overcome this routine and tiredness.
And I took out the color of some footage. I took out the color from the Ferguson footage. Because we are telling a story that went in a circle. We are telling a story that goes from past to present, and back.
The words in the film are all Baldwin's. Did you ever consider bringing in other voices?
This was one of the first decisions I made. The question was always, "How do I bring those words to the forefront?" I knew Baldwin had to be the person telling the story and presenting these words himself. I didn't want talking heads. It would have been putting somebody between Baldwin's words and the audience, and I don't think these words need any interpretation. Baldwin's words are so strong and so multilayered that an intellectual can deal with them and the man in the street can deal with them. Every person can own those words and can understand them profoundly.
Why isn't Baldwin more central to the American canon?
There are many explanations. One being that even in his lifetime, Baldwin was pushed aside by the new generation of leaders that were in the limelight. Toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin was so critical. And at the same time, he wanted to find peaceful solutions, and that did not please every radical group. There was also homophobia in some of the leadership. And a big part of the leadership was also killed or arrested or silenced, and Baldwin lost, little by little, all his friends, including the most famous ones, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
So at the time, he became almost a has-been. Basically, the world had changed and there was no more room for Baldwin. And I think part of that was the goal of this film: to make sure that these words never leave the stage.
What do you want your audience to take away from the film?
The film is a confrontation with oneself. It's about questioning not only your place in this society, but your role and, as Baldwin put it, what you want to do about it.
We all need to face it. Because if we don't there is a huge catastrophe in front of us. We need to face our history and be responsible for it.