Filmmaker Raoul Peck has been working on the adaptation of the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro for a decade, and as Peck recently explained on MTV News’s "The Stakes" podcast, Peck’s interest in James Baldwin was sparked as a teenager. Baldwin’s writing has been a constant guide for Peck throughout his life, and Peck’s film plays as a full embodiment of Baldwin’s artistic and political ethos.
I Am Not Your Negro is a realization of James Baldwin’s final unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, a memoir Baldwin proposed to recount the history of his fallen friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The unfinished nature of this last work by Baldwin gave Peck the freedom for experimentation, and, like the author himself, Peck has a broad range of influences. If the letters and notes from Baldwin are an attempt to sketch out a portrait of race in America, Peck fills in what Baldwin did not live to see with footage that covers a century of American history, from lynching photos to Baldwin’s television appearances to viral videos of police shootings. Peck’s film is documentary as a visual and aural collage, a reconstruction of Baldwin both in his own words — as read by Samuel L. Jackson — and in his own spirit of invention and creativity.
As a conversationalist, Peck’s style is not far off from the movie he has made. Connecting his thoughts with uncommon fluidity over the course of our interview, Peck managed to break down the rewards of independent film production, the history of America post-Reagan, the challenges facing modern resistance movements, the transition from Obama to Trump ... and he also found time to talk about his film and the great American voice of reason who inspired it.
Below is the condensed result of our half-hour conversation with Peck, which we’ve broken down by subject to reflect the diversity and depth of Peck’s interests.
On Preserving James Baldwin’s Voice
I was working with the best possible material a filmmaker could have. Baldwin is an incredible speaker, an eloquent speaker. He was a young preacher. So he knows how to get to people, he knows how to use the words. He knows when to use emotion. He knows how to be truthful and how that will transcend and reveal the urgency. But I had to experiment with how I could use Baldwin’s words in a context of the film. For me, the film was an impossible film to make. I had to decide we would use no talking heads, and instead I would use whatever original material I can get my hands on — whether it's black or white photos, film, archive, or television. I had to decide there will be a voice that will be Baldwin's voice but his words will be read by an actor, Samuel L. Jackson. And I had to question, would it work that you see Baldwin and then you hear a different voice without you having a problem? In film school they would tell you, no, you can't do that. But that's exactly what I wanted to do.
Making a film is just layers and layers of work of edits and trial and error. There's a reason I chose certain kinds of music, why the final edit is the way it is. We had to work a lot to get rid of the constraints of chronology so we could go back and forth in time. Visually, most of the material I chose, the subject is looking at the camera so it instills a different kind of intimacy. Film is a process. And the process evolved along the way. We spent almost six years in editing and research, and in archives. It was detective work. I would read a footnote in one of Baldwin’s essays, where he would say, “I was listening to this music at this time,” and I would research that music until I found it. And sometimes what I found was not what I thought it would be, but it gave me the idea to take something else which was more appropriate. So it's a long chain of research and surprises.
On Independent Financing
I knew I had to control this film financially. I could produce it myself because I'm an older filmmaker, so there are people who trust my work. I could go to Arte in France and give them five pages and say, “I don't know what this film is going to be; just trust me and be patient.” And they wait for me for six years, until I could deliver a film. So all those circumstances were exceptional, and they gave me the freedom to go as far as I could with no limit in terms of content, politics, or form. Especially working with someone like Baldwin — who broke all the barriers and said whatever he wanted to say — I felt I had to at least try to equal his boldness.
Say I had gotten money from HBO. In three years HBO would say, “Mr. Peck, what's with the film? Where's the film?” And I'd be obliged to work at another pace. In this sense, I was producing so I could give myself the time. I made other films while I was working on I Am Not Your Negro, so I could let archivists work for two or three months looking for stuff all over the world. When we were ready to edit, we could edit for a few months and then we’d stop. We’d do something else. Let the material rest. And then we would come back to it with new eyes. All this maturing and nurturing was important to the process itself. There are no miracles. You can feel a sequence is extraordinary, and then three months later you can watch the same sequence and pick out, “Yeah, here it's good but there it is not good.” That lets you go a step further. You shed off all the bad stuff, if you give yourself the time. If you asked me today if there's a piece that I would do differently — there’s nothing. Regret happens with all my films. I say, “I know, I left that because I was so tired, I said let it pass.” For this film, I didn't let anything pass.
On Gaining Access to James Baldwin’s Estate
It’s your integrity and your work that speaks for you. When I was younger there were moments when I said, “Why do I keep making that sort of film?” I learned how to make Scary Movie 6, 7, and 8 at film school, but that's not the choice I made when I finished. I chose the hard way. I have refused money sometimes for a film. I have refused films when I felt that it was not for me. When it was just a job or just about making money, I said no. I wanted to make every film count, and when you are true to yourself, this gives you a certain integrity and a certain reputation.
When I wrote to the Baldwin estate, my lawyer in L.A. said, “You don't even need to write, because they won't respond, that's how they are.” All right, but I wrote anyway. And within three days I had a response: “Come see us in Washington.” The next week I went there, and who opened the door? Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin's younger sister, who runs the estate. And I felt at home. I found out that she had seen my films, she had seen Lumumba in particular, about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. She went to Africa when she was 21 with James Baldwin on his first trip to Africa. She met a lot of the leaders and it was an important time for her. She met her first husband in Sierra Leone. So suddenly I was facing somebody who had seen a lot of my films and who knew who I was. I'm sure if one of my films was Scary Movie 6, that would've cast a shadow. You pay a price in your life, and sometimes it takes time for something to get back to you. And in that case it happened.
Four years into the research process, Gloria Karefa-Smart gave me a stack of papers, and she said, “Raoul, here, you might know what to do with this.” The papers were Baldwin’s notes and the letter to his literary agent for Remember This House, and that was it. It was a book that was never written, and connected to those three names, MLK, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. So this was really magic, and I knew then the film would be about finding this book within his body of work.
On Introducing James Baldwin to the Next Generation
I knew at some point I would probably do a movie, and ten years ago I decided it was time to, because there was a lot of confusion about if anything had changed or not between our time and Baldwin’s. The mere fact that people could ask that question was proof that nothing had changed for them. It was key to come back to Baldwin because the younger generation is supposedly well informed, they have access to everything, but they also have access to confusion.
It's scary for the younger generation because you don't have the models right in front of you. There's an apparent freedom, an apparent liberty of access to everything, but you can't use it because it's too much. Everything is at the same level. You even have fake news. You have to go through fake news to make up your mind. Facts and lies are treated as equal. There are even people who are against the idea of climate change. What kind of way to decide about your future, you know? And so it's a complicated situation. I don't know how it's gonna go, but like Baldwin says, this generation will need to face it. You can't put your head in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist. The best way we know is to face it and start talking — really talking, face to face.
On the Backslide of American Politics
It started with Reagan, who started destroying the unions. The civil rights movement was decimated, the Black Panther Party was decimated, all the other radical parties as well. A lot of people were imprisoned, and a lot of people were killed or sent in exile. Reagan’s era was part of the Cold War as well, and when the Berlin Wall fell down, it was like open game for capitalists. The financial world exploded, and Bill Clinton opened the gates. The Democrats went further than Reagan to open the regulations. Thatcher did the same in Europe, and those acts have consequences.
On Organized Resistance
Today you have a movement like Occupy Wall Street, where you have a whole generation who feel the revolt, who feel the urge to resist, the urge to change their lives. But they very rapidly hit the wall. And one of the walls is the absence of ideology, the absence — or the allergy — to internal politics. People say they don't want to be represented, they don't want politics. But you need to organize a way for your structure to function. You can't say in the group we are all equal. Theoretically yes, but at some point you need to have somebody who talks better, somebody who knows how to organize a march. I hope one of the things people will see in this film is that you need steps, and it's not sufficient to react upon your anger. At some point you need to organize. And that's what we forget or don't know anymore, because the transition was made, and the leadership was killed. Decades ago, young people were provided with a structure to make sure a demonstration goes well. There were people to bring their cars or their knowledge or their ability to negotiate with the police. And in academia, my professors were in the street with me. We would discuss in class, what is the next step? They would bring their knowledge, they would bring their experience, and we would, of course, challenge their knowledge and their experience, and out of that conflict would come something. Today, academia is a bubble. Academics look at the streets from far away and have their own problems of getting the best job, or getting published, or getting tenure. And the reality is something totally separate.
On the Transition From the Obama Administration to Trump
There is a sentence I cut from the film where Baldwin said, “The real question is not who's going to be the next Negro president, the real question is what country is he going to be the president of?” It's not the man, it's not the one individual that's going to make the decision. It's all of us. If we had gotten 500,000 to 600,000 people in the street while Obama was president, Obama would've been able to do much more than he did. Congress would have not been able to block him as they did. But even voting has become part of consumption. That's the problem for democracy — we've all become consumers of democracy. But democracy is an active state, it's something that's never finished, and we have to fight every day of it to get better rights and better justice.
People like Baldwin or MLK or Malcolm X thought on a broad scale. They had very bright minds and they talk not only of themselves or their race, but of the whole republic. Not only was race important, but class was important too. Right now is a scary time, but once you have somebody like Baldwin who was able to speak so directly, what are we all afraid of? You always need to know that even if you're risking your job, so what? Don’t let yourself become silenced. Everybody's been made fragile because they're afraid of losing their job. Forty years ago you were not afraid of losing your job, because there were jobs everywhere. But now a whole generation has been silenced. Because it's not about telling the truth or speaking to power. It became about how do I preserve my little home, my little husband, my cars, my babies, all of that. But if you don't resist that, it's your babies who will have the problems. Resist, or the next generation after you will have climate change, they will have lots of other Donald Trumps to deal with.