I Am Not Your Negro’s Raoul Peck on Optimism Versus Pessimism, the Class Struggle, and Why James Baldwin Still Resonates Today

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Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

This winter has brought a selection of great films that powerfully and painfully reflect the black experience in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a tender and aching coming-of-age story that portrays blackness, queerness, and masculinity in a way rarely seen on the screen, and Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a heartbreaking documentary that sheds light on mass incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery. February 3 sees the release of another crucial film, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro. The documentary, ten years in the making, creates visual poetry out of James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, a text that rings eerily true almost 40 years later.

The Haitian-born Peck eschews documentary conventions: There are no talking heads, only Baldwin, in archival footage and excerpts from the manuscript voiced by Samuel L. Jackson. The actor carries the heavy weight of Baldwin’s words — sometimes fiery, often weary — as he examines the civil-rights movement, the intersection of race and class, and the lives and deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. In our current political climate, it’s a film that demands to be seen. Just a month before the Oscars and a week before the inauguration, I sat down with Raoul Peck to discuss what Baldwin means to him, the importance of the class struggle in the fight for racial justice, and why he put Kendrick Lamar over the end credits.

There’s so much to unpack with James Baldwin’s words, I need to see this film again.
It’s a very rich film with many layers. When you see it again, you almost see a different film. It’s a really personal experience.

Did you find it complicated to take the text and make it into a film because of all those layers?
At first, it was the impossible project. I knew what I felt and why it was strong. I asked, How do I make the film? I had to go as far as I could artistically — not only in terms of content, but also form. I had to make sure that I push the limits. And I had access to everything, which is unprecedented. I knew I better make something that’s really original and different. It’s like composing a symphony with many layers. My job was to make sure it was musical.

So you brought in Samuel L. Jackson. I actually didn’t realize he was narrating until the end credits.
Some critics say it’s his best film. [Laughs.]

He’s so understated here.
He is a great actor, somebody that can take a text and create a character. I said, “I don’t want a narrator. What I need is a character. So you are the voice, you are the words. And every word has to be truthful and emotionally felt.” He’s not just reading a sentence; he’s feeling a sentence. Even the silences are full of tension.

Do you know how much James Baldwin’s work meant to him beforehand?
He probably read Baldwin. The text is so powerful, and that’s why you feel like you want to listen to it again. It’s a very strong philosophical, poetic, political text. You can quote all Baldwin all day.

Baldwin doesn’t really give you an easy black or white answer.
You face the reality, whether it’s hopeful or hopeless. What’s your alternative? To lie down and die? Sometimes people ask me, are you an optimist or a pessimist? It doesn’t matter. Whether I have a future or not is for me to decide. Do you intend to do something or not? But now you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s what the film does to you. After seeing the film, you can’t say, “Oh, I didn’t know, is it that bad?”

That rings especially true under Trump’s presidency. What do you hope your viewers will take away from this film?
I feel like I did my duty, now it’s on the table. I think every citizen of this country should watch the film, or read Baldwin and get a grip on his life. I give you the tools for that. But I can’t do the job for you. I refuse to make films where the audience comes for consumption. I make films where you know you are also part of the process. You bring something, and you will get at least as much from the film. If there is one thing, I would say I hope Baldwin will be taught in school and that people will pay attention to his work.

This film took ten years to make. Did you feel it become increasingly more relevant, and did that put pressure to release it sooner?
My impulse to make this film was already provoked by what I saw happening in this country and around the world. The civil-rights movement had done its part — we have laws and institutions, and we even have Black History Month — but does it really change the state of the people mentally? Does it change the fact that black families are more subject to abuse, to be killed, to lose their jobs? Does that change the distribution between the rich and the poor in this country? No. So I knew that the film was necessary, that Baldwin was necessary, and the book he wanted to write was exactly about that: the connection between Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and how they were getting closer together. They were killed because they were starting to address the class situation. They understood the race situation is just one level of the same disease, which is the class separation — the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer. When you read or listen to the last speeches of Martin Luther King, they had a totally different tone. He was talking about changing this country from the ground up. The next big march to Washington was a march against poverty. That’s when the system got scared, and they made sure that he would pay the price.

Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter became a movement while you were making the film.
Exactly. I didn’t know that I would use Ferguson, but when you feel that there is a historical movement — and Ferguson was historical — I knew I needed that. The only difference is we started filming these killings and seeing them in the media and social media. Cops didn’t start killing black people just five years ago. This is an ongoing situation. They have killed the whole leadership of the Black Panthers. It’s nothing new. So when you want to make a film, you better be sure that it’s still gonna be important when you finish it.

Hollywood has had diversity issues, and this past year feels monumental, almost reactionary to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Do you feel skeptical of all this diversity praise?
Last year, people reacted to the fact that there were no black or minority films in the Academy. This year it’s the contrary, but that cannot hide the fact that it’s a fundamental problem, which is that minorities are not in the position to green-light such films. We still depend on the generosity of a middle-aged white guy who barely knows anything about the rest of the world to makes these decisions. You know, you have to discuss for half an hour who Baldwin is and why he is important. As long as this is the situation, nothing will change. It’s a structural problem.

How do you think minority filmmakers should keep pushing the conversation?
Well, the ones that are already in the system have no choice but to keep fighting and making films so that others can also come up onboard. It’s everyone’s responsibility, particularly those with power. Like Baldwin says, white is a metaphor for power. We just decided this color is power, but it doesn’t mean it has to be like this forever. So we have to challenge this power, this notion of whiteness, and change it.

I noticed you used Kendrick Lamar in the end credits, as does Moonlight. Why that choice?
I think that he is one of the most interesting voices right now. I have been skeptical, sometimes, about the importance of rap music, which I think is a capitalistic project to make money. Kendrick is a very particular poet, and what he says makes a lot of sense to me. He is strong; he has a very wise way of seeing the world around him. And I like his music, and I thought it was a perfect circle of this present generation, the voice that is following Baldwin, and a certain tradition of resistance and art and speaking up. And I was looking for a similar voice from today and wanted to address the younger generation [and tell them] it’s also your fight, you have to be a part of this. So the choice was evident for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Raoul Peck on I Am Not Your Negro and Baldwin