Thankfully, Raoul Peck had James Baldwin behind him.
Peck adapted an unfinished manuscript by American writer and activist James Baldwin into the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. At the Cannes Film Festival, Peck gave a candid interview about his personal history with Baldwin (“I use him as a guide”) and with Hollywood movies. Along the way, Peck discusses his approach to making and naming his film, his thoughts on the current state of civil rights in America and Donald Trump.
Some of Baldwin’s writing feels very contemporary despite being written 30-odd years ago. Did it strike you how resonant it is now as you were reading them?
I knew that already, I read Baldwin very early in my life and I use him as a guide, as a philosopher to go back to, in times of confusion… Because any sentence from him is so full of metaphor and reality, and really food for thought. I knew the role he played for me 10 years ago. When I decided to make this film it was not so much about me discovering anything new, it was about, “How do I bring it to a wider audience? How do I make sure Baldwin will not be forgotten?”
What’s shocking is that, when you show the modern images, the whole violence which surrounds us is not something new, it is so rooted in culture.
He would say that, fundamentally, nothing has changed. In particular, those last 30 years. We tend in our lives to be very superficial about what is happening in the world. We cease to see the bigger history, we are always living in anecdote after anecdote, the daily news. It’s about the breaking news of the day…
What Baldwin does is bring us back to the fundamentals, where you have space to think and where you can see where it started. Where are we today? Did anything fundamental happen? What are the numbers? How many black people are in prison today? How many black families have to grow up without a mother or a father? What is the situation of housing for black or poor people, et cetera. So those are the criteria to say whether it’s better or not, and also to ask the very people, are you better, or not?
If you watch TV, you think everybody’s incredible, because we have Jay-Z, we have Beyoncé, we have everything, but that’s only a fraction of the reality.
Baldwin also writes “we are a truly complex society that insists to be narrow minded.” Is he also a symbol of it? [There’s an] infantile attitude that we develop, in order to negate the reality. Everything becomes Hollywood, everything becomes “we are heroes,” “life is beautiful.” And we can construct a life, which is a lie, but we can stick to it, and that’s what Hollywood did throughout the planet wherever you are. In Haiti, I used to watch Hollywood movies. I used to watch Tarzan. And when I was 8, I went to the Congo with my parents, and I just realised, my god, Africa is not this. They are not dancing around the tarmac with spears, and welcoming me, but that’s the image I have.
Do you still watch those types of Hollywood movies?
No, but it evolved. Today you can see we have to separate between the mainstream and what individual filmmakers are doing. There are very interesting filmmakers in the industry who are trying to break certain walls, but the cliché is still there. For example, when you see a German in American cinema, it’s a caricature. When you see a Frenchman, it’s a caricature. So, imagine what they did to the third world, to blacks, to Latinos, to gay people, to women. It’s a caricature. It’s a dream machine.
So how do you see this modern, mainstream wave of films that have reconsidered the ‘50s and ‘60s like Hidden Figures, Fences, even Jackie?
Well, Hidden Figures, I know a lot of black people were criticising that film. The same way when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came out, I was a young man. Of course, I was proud, for once. I was seeing a black, handsome and intelligent man who is a doctor, who even gets the girl, and that was one of the first times. I was not afraid of what will happen to him in the movie, and it was an incredible movie. But, at the same time, without knowing it, Hollywood was giving me a level that I need to be in order to be accepted. The message is always double, that’s how Hollywood functions. Even when it pretends to bring you further, there is, of course, a sort of price you pay, because it’s telling you something else as well. That’s what Baldwin was always able to deconstruct. He’d deconstruct the machine, and say, “well, there is no innocence in that.”
What inspired you with regards to the footage from American films that you feature in I Am Not Your Negro? For example, Imitation of Life is obvious, King Kong is less obvious.
In King Kong, I was the black savage, trying to eat the little white blonde. I saw myself. You didn’t see yourself, but in King Kong, I was there. That’s the difference.
Could you tell us about how you collected and added all of that footage?
One important thing is, I used to say the film took me 10 years, but in fact it took me 30 more years before, because it is part of my own mythology as well. As a kid when you play cowboys and Indians you ask yourself, “How come I always want to be the cowboy? Not the Indian?” There was already a power distinction there. And it goes on and on. When I went to Africa, I really thought I would see Tarzan, at 8 years old. All your life you are confronted with images that are profound… It’s hard to subtract yourself from the power of a story, but at some point, you realise there is something wrong. How come the black guy is always the first one to die? Because he has to die in order for the story to continue. Women are used like this. A lot of westerns started because in the first ten minutes when they kill the blonde woman, it is revenge. The whole film is revenge. The whole film is based on this ideology working. You are exposed to it on many different levels, and if you don’t deconstruct it in your head, you will always go for it.
The title is quite provocative on some level, did anyone try and make you change it at any point?
Who would dare? No, I knew that this film would be possible if I had nobody in front of me. That I would have the time I need until I feel that I am ready to finish the film. I waited as long as I could for any additional financing, and I chose whoever was going to come on board, and the people who got on board, it was way too late for them to have any authority over me.
So, when I decided to change the title, I just told everybody it was not going to be remembered as Remember This House [title of the unfinished book by James Baldwin that serves as the inspirational source for the documentary] because it demands too much explanation to explain that title. And I came up with a list of thirty names, playing with “nigger,” with the invention of, the fabrication of, the construction, etc. One was, I Am Not Your Negro. Yes, it’s provocative; In the same way, it doesn’t ask for permission. It is stating something, and however you take it that’s your problem, but I am sticking this where I stand.
I can imagine part of the public will say, “I’m not going there,” but now that the film is well-known, I don’t think people have that problem. Making this film, I could not be doing less than Baldwin did at a time when it was dangerous to do that or to say that. And he said it on national TV, at a time when there were only three channels. And these people were going to the South. They were risking their lives, some of them were killed, and all the three leaders were killed.
Do you think there are minds today that can live up to the example of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?
Well, the painful thing is that they killed them. It’s not that, “Oh, there is no new ones,” they killed them, so they killed the movement. And they killed it in a very different way, not only physically, but they also make sure that we’re building a statue for Martin Luther King, the nice, non-violent preacher. They didn’t build a statue for Malcolm X. And they choose the part of Martin Luther King that was peaceful, but the last two years of his life, he was very radical. He was angry. He wanted the whole social change, for black and poor white. And they understood that it was a class issue, not a race issue.
When that discourse changed, they became the enemy, they became dangerous, and both of them were killed because of that. So today, yes, we are missing those voices, because there was no tradition. There have been killings, there has been exile, there has been prison. The main part of this leadership has gone into politics, which is a different ballgame and others were intimidated. So, there is no tradition today. What we call the sort of gentrification of the movement, where they create a black bourgeoisie who don’t have the same interests as the poor, urban and rural black people. It’s difficult, it’s more difficult.
What do you have to say about Donald Trump?
He’s totally part of this mythology of innocence, in the US, that you can commit the worst crime, and you can just apologise, and then you are a new man, or a new woman. It’s what Baldwin called, “immaturity becomes a virtue,” and Donald Trump is a perfect product of that as well. But even he is a caricature, but Clinton and many others as well.