In his spellbinding and heartbreaking Academy Award nominated film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck examines the story that James Baldwin never finished writing. “Remember This House” was to be a sweeping narrative exploring the lives, journeys, and deaths of three pivotal men in our history; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. An intricate and fascinating narrative, “I Am Not Your Negro,” gives us a view of both Baldwin and Peck’s journeys as Black men in America, encountering racism and violence.
Magnolia Pictures opens the film in USA theaters this Friday, February 3, in a limited release, so check your local listings.
Recently, Mr. Peck and I sat down to chat about the highly acclaimed film, the thirty pages from Baldwin’s unfinished text that sparked the idea and Peck’s own confrontation with America and Hollywood in our current political climate which as Baldwin stated, is one full of “apathy and ignorance.”
Raoul Peck: Hi Aramide
Aramide Tinubu: Hello, Mr. Peck how are you?
RP: I’m fine, thank you.
AT: Wonderful. I wanted to say first and foremost that I thought, “I Am Not Your Negro” was stunning. I saw it at the New York Film Festival last fall, and I watched it again last night. It is so riveting, especially considering the political climate that we find ourselves in.
RP: Thank you.
AT: I wanted to ask you first about how you got a hold of the notes from James Baldwin’s “Remember This House.” How were you able to get his estate to agree to hand them over, and what prompted you to do this film after receiving them?
RP: First of all, I decided a little more than ten years ago to tackle Baldwin; to go back to Baldwin. I’ve lived with Baldwin all of my life. I read him very early on as a young man, and he never left me. Baldwin is not somebody who if you read a book or two you cast him aside. He’s not that kind of writer. He’s a philosopher; he’s a poet, he’s a visionary. He has almost a scientific approach to this country, to the world and to human beings. So, he’s almost like a private philosopher that you can come back to and help understand whatever issue that you have or political question that you have. It’s all in Baldwin already. So you can read different books at different stages and come back to that thinking. So it’s very coherent. When I decided to go back, it was more or less to share that thinking with other people because I felt the time was right, and I felt that we really needed a voice like this. Because there were some victories with the Civil Right’s Movement; we have Martin Luther King Day, we have Black History Month, most people think everything is good now, we’ve solved all of the problems. We have monuments; we have museums. But, that’s not the case.
AT: Not at all.
RP: It was necessary politically to bring that back to the forefront and to bring these words in the forefront. When I went to inquire about the rights, everybody told me, “The estate will never even answer your letter, they are known to be very reluctant.” But, I just wrote a letter, and they responded within three days.
RP: They invited me to visit them in Washington, which I did. I was welcomed by Gloria Karefa-Smart, who is Baldwin’s younger sister and the head of his estate. She really welcomed me as if I was a son of the family. Then I discovered that she had seen my films and that she had been very impressed in particular by “Lumumba” because in her youth she knew a lot of those figures. She went to Africa with James Baldwin on his first trip, she was a twenty-year-old woman at the time, helping Baldwin as his secretary, and she kept that role almost all of her life. So, we really had a great connection.
AT: That’s incredible.
RP: So they accepted not only to give me the rights to a particular book but to have access to everything, whatever I would ask, whatever I would need because at that point I did not know what the film would be. I just knew that Baldwin would be in the forefront. His words, his writing, not so much his biography. I was not so much interested in that. The discovery of “Remember This House,” came four years into this process.
AT: Oh! I had no idea that you research was so lengthy.
RP: It was because I was still searching for the right approach. I had written various synopses and different treatments, and I knew that I had to come up with something very original and even something that had never been done before. As you see in the approach with the film, I don’t know any other documentary that has tried to tackle a subject this way.
AT: Not at all.
RP: There are no talking heads. Using Baldwin’s real voice and the voice of another actor; it’s unprecedented. So, it took me four years to find the right way to go into that. That letter helped me do that.
AT: Definitely. Once you decided that “Remember This House” would be the route that you went down, what did your process look like regarding the construction of the film?
RP: First of all, I work a lot with voices and voiceover in my films whether they are documentaries, fiction or narrative. It’s an incredible design because film sometimes is not very refined for certain philosophical or political subjects. [Martin] Scorsese uses a lot of narratives like this too. I’ve experimented and made films like this, so I knew more or less what I wanted it to be. But then, it’s finding the right way. So I had the text, and I knew I had to start with that. It was almost a three-hour text that I put together with the stuff I wanted to have. I also had to put it in a dramatic structure that made sense. It had to be a real story with a beginning, middle and an end. Once you have that then you can start going further in your research, you can start inventing images, looking through the archives, going back and forth from what you find to what you put together and it changes. So, it was a very very long process; we had almost a six-year process before we came to the final edit.
AT: How did you decide that you wanted Samuel L. Jackson to come on board to speak in Baldwin’s voice?
RP: Well from the start I knew I needed a personality. The business being what it is, to have a famous person in the film is always an important asset. So because I knew I wanted the film to be watchable and accessible to the largest crowd possible, I knew a famous name would help. But, I also wanted not only a great actor but somebody who has some sort of street credibility; somebody we could trust when we heard his voice. There are not that many. There are people, who I love and I love what they do, but that person might not be the person that you want to read certain texts. So, it had to be somebody who in his real life had some sort of grounded attitude and respect. So Sam Jackson was on the top of my list for that. I know some people criticize him for some of his films but, he’s an actor, he does what he is asked of. But, at the same time when you hear him speak about himself, his life, who he is, or about political issues he’s always clear about it. That I liked, so I was sure that he would be an important contribution to the film. When we sent him the project, and he read it, he didn’t take that much time to say yes, and it was incredible.
AT: Fantastic. How did you decide which pieces of archival footage you wanted to use because there is so much, especially from the ‘60s and moving forward into today through Ferguson and into a post-Obama America? How did you decide which pieces would be the most poignant?
RP: Well that’s the thing, it’s a process. When you see the finished film, of course, you cannot see the work that went into that. Or maybe you can because it’s like a huge puzzle with ten thousand pieces. You can only do that while you are on the editing table with trial and error. It’s like a gigantic chess game. When you move one piece, it has consequences for the next hour of the film. So, you have to make sure when you are moving it that you are always in control of what you are saying and what you are showing. That’s why those steps were important. The first step was to have a text that you can rely on. Then there are the images that Baldwin himself has created or has associated with the text. Then there is the research that you do. We had a great team of archivists to whom I gave a thirty-page list of things that I needed to see, like the old Doris Day films and that old John Wayne film.
AT: The [Sidney] Poitier films.
RP: Yes. Also, a film like this, I say it’s been ten years, but it’s probably more like forty years; it’s my whole life as a professional. It’s my own memories, my own confrontation with Hollywood. I grew up with those films. I grew up watching “Tarzan,” I grew up watching John Ford wherever I was. As a kid, I was in Africa, in the Congo but Sunday afternoon those were the films we watched in the theaters. So, in all of these years, and you’re probably much younger than I am (Laughing), you have a journal, you have words, you take notes of things in life, or you have them in your memories. When you are doing a film like this, all of this comes up to the front. So those are things that you have somewhere, and you decide that it’s the right time to use them. So the film is the addition of all of this. You don’t just come up with it, it comes with the experience, with your life experience, with the other films that you have made; with the other things that you couldn’t say in another film. The rest is just editing and trying stuff and finding the best footage. I’m not even going into the rights situation where you have to find the things you can afford. So it’s a permanent negotiation, and you make sure at each step you make the film better, that you don’t cut something because you don’t have the money. When you can’t afford it, you find a way to have something better that you can afford. It’s the same with the music; there are many layers.
AT: You’re right, from Lena Horne to Kendrick Lamar all of those musical choices were sensational.
RP: Exactly, the Lena Horne, that music always gets me going and I knew from the start before I even started working on the music, I knew that I would have Lena Horne. It’s all from Baldwin’s environment; he knew Lena Horne, he knew these people. I wanted to have Nina Simone; I wanted to have all of these people because they were in Baldwin’s world. He knew them personally. So, making that kind of film, it’s also a reconstruction of a world or this man’s world. You have to make sure that all of these layers are in it. Sometimes it’s not even in a very evident way. You don’t see it, but it just adds up.
AT: We know Baldwin as a writer and activist, but he also talks about being a witness. A witness in that he was present to document all of the things that were happening around him. How can we use his activism as a model for today, and do you think there is any hope for the “American Dream” in Trump’s America?
RP: Well, first of all, I find that what is in the film, which is already a sort very concentrated America and Baldwin’s analysis of America and Baldwin’s insight, he tells us what we need to do, which is in one sentence. “You need to face reality; you need to face your history, you need to know it.” Those are important tools that he is giving us. Everything is in the film. That’s why for me, it’s much more than just a film. It’s an experience that you have with yourself and then with your society, and then whoever is in your life that you are confronting every day. It’s a film that you can go back to. Anything that you can ask me, I would quote you a moment of the film.
RP: That’s how concentrated and strong it is. Even now you just talked about the dream; you heard what Baldwin said about the dream. He says, “This is a dream but on a genocide, so what kind of dream can it be?”
AT: It can’t be anything.
RP: So then, if you can’t confront it you going to delude yourself for your whole life. That’s why every sentence of this film is important; it’s almost a bible. Once you have it and read it, you need to think and take whatever you need out of it. For me that was really a humbling experience, that’s why when I talk about the film I’m totally at ease because these are his words they aren’t mine. I don’t even have to defend anything, you know? This is raw Baldwin, and sometimes I tell people “Deal with it!” (Laughing)
AT: Exactly. It hurts, it’s painful, but you have to confront it.
RP: Yes, it tells your right to your face. There is a moment in the film where he says, “You need to see, and you need to own it, and you need to respond to it.” He brings you in front of your own personal responsibilities.
AT: Oh he definitely does. So can you tell me what is next for you after “I Am Not Your Negro”?
RP: Well I am in a very great position in that my next film is finished. My next film is a big narrative called “The Young Karl Marx.”
RP: So it will open at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
AT: I will certainly look for it. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and Shadow and Act, Mr. Peck “I Am Not Your Negro” is required viewing for everyone.
RP: Thank you and I love your website, I look at it regularly, so you all are doing great work as well.
AT: Thank you so much, have a wonderful rest of your day.
“I Am Not Your Negro,” which received an Oscar Nomination for Best Documentary, will be released in theaters on February 3, 2017. In addition, Amazon Studios acquired exclusive streaming rights to the documentary which will also eventually make its broadcast TV premiere on PBS in late 2017.
Watch a trailer below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami