“If your analysis of whether the situation is better for black people today comes from looking at Beyoncé and P. Diddy, you understand nothing. But if you take the prison statistics, the housing statistics, the school statistics—then you say ‘Oh my God. Nothing has changed.’ The wealth—where is the wealth in this country? It’s worse, you know, than 50 years ago.”
Raoul Peck has spent the past 30 years variously as a New York cab driver, a documentarian in Germany, and as the Minister for Culture in the Haitian government—and he is as outspoken as one would expect him to be. Peck’s most recent documentary, an examination of the life and work of the Civil Rights-era essayist and social commentator James Baldwin, entitled I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. Like Peck, it doesn’t pull many punches.
Two Minute Warning, a photograph taken of a march in Selma, 1965, by Spider Martin
Fifty years ago, though, black men and women were still being lynched in the South. Surely Beyoncé and Diddy are minor evils when compared to that state of affairs? Peck concedes this, to a point. “I can’t say nothing has changed; there’s been a cosmetic change, but not fundamental change. We have the same problem with women – yes, you can say ‘A woman can vote today.’ But does it mean that today, as a woman, you feel totally free? No.
“Particularly in my profession, when a woman has a project about women she goes into a room and there are six white male executives in front of her. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but it’s at least 90 per cent the case.”
Peck, like Baldwin, is verbose, opinionated and eloquent, but he is keen to paint the writer as an influence rather than a peer—I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished manuscript Baldwin started writing before his death entitled Remember This House.
James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro
“My connection to Baldwin is that I read him very early, when I was a young man, and he changed my life. He gave me the instruments to analyse who I was, where I was and also the narrative I was in, and who was telling the story; but my story was not being told. About 10 to 12 years ago I felt that we were at a point where we really needed some clarity. It was Trump before Trump; that you could feel. And because I lived in so many different places, I could see the degradation of the discussion; of intellect; of truth, even in Europe.
“The crazy thing is that Baldwin wrote this 50 years ago but when you see the film, you feel he wrote it today. He says—at a time when there were only three television channels in the US—that the entertainment industry seems to be the same as narcotics, like the use of narcotics… 50 years ago! And then today [we have] hundreds of hours of so-called reality shows? That’s one topic. You can do that with everything.”
Narrative is a word that comes up repeatedly when Peck speaks about race relations in the United States—but does the narrative of Civil Rights detract from writers like Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry in favour of the more bombastic, electrifying duopoly of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Baldwin’s own manuscript for Remember This House was intended to focus on the lives of King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
Peck feels history has definitely ignored certain elements of King’s legacy. Scholars, he says, “just take a moment of [his life] and frame it forever. They want to talk about the peaceful preacher, not the radical extremist that Martin Luther King became in the last two years of his life, because he had left the strictly racial agenda to [move to] a class agenda. His main problem was inequality in America, whether white or black. The next march to Washington would have been a march against poverty.”
Anti-miscegenation protesters, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959
The rewriting of history is, in fact, something for which the filmmaker himself has come under fire from some quarters. Sporadic criticism has been aimed at I Am Not Your Negro for skirting round the subject of Baldwin’s homosexuality. But Peck doesn’t accept this, pointing to moments in the film, and by extension Baldwin’s own writing, that allude to the subject.
“My job is not to pre-think Baldwin. I’m trying to follow what he wanted to write. I’m not speaking in his place. So I have to be humble. He talks about his vacation with his boyfriend Lucian in Puerto Rico where there are all the FBI files [kept on them]; he makes a joke about Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger not kissing at the end of the In The Heat of the Night. Those are allusions, but he’s a man of his time.”
He emphasizes the fact that there are no talking heads, no experts in the film to explain Baldwin’s writings. For an hour and a half, it’s just Baldwin’s own words read aloud—by Samuel L. Jackson, no less—and nothing else. “He is the one talking. I am just the messenger. My job was to present him again, in all his power.”—Thomas Barrie
Images courtesy of Altitude Films