In 1979, James Baldwin wrote to his agent, proposing a book, Remember This House, which would consist of personal accounts of the lives of his murdered friends: “For those who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives,” he wrote.
When he died in 1987, Baldwin had only completed 30 pages of the manuscript. But that proved more than enough material for renowned Haitian director Raoul Peck (Sometimes in April, Lumumba) to create a masterful documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, an examination of race in the United States from the Civil Rights era to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement. Using only Baldwin’s words — voiced by an almost unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson — Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary (opening in theaters February 3, with a paperback edition of the project from Vintage Books February 7) painstakingly weaves images, music, humor, poetry, and drama into an audiovisual tapestry that explores the lives of Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin, as well as the racism, exploitation, and injustice that continue to plague black lives in the United States.
During my hourlong conversation with Peck at Sunset Tower Hotel, he discussed his 10-year process with the project and his 30-year journey with Baldwin.
MICHELLE AMOR: Author B. J. Neblett has said: “We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences […] make us the person we are.” As a filmmaker, professor, and a black woman in the United States, I Am Not Your Negro really spoke to me on so many different emotional levels.
RAOUL PECK: What you described is happening after every screening. For me it’s not a film, it’s a personal experience. There is little room for you not to be confronted by these words, these images, and it forces you to revisit your own life, your own emotion, your own position in this country, and who you are as a person. As a woman, it’s the same; whether you are white or black. It hits you in the face. You cannot watch this and walk away innocent.
Why Baldwin? Why now — at this stage in your career?
I knew the importance of Baldwin in my life. He shaped me. He shaped who I was at a very young age. Last week, I was remembering that it was two young, gay black American men I met in Berlin who first gave me Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. I was 16 or 17. I use it to this day, almost as a bible. I go back to Baldwin whenever I feel I need a push, something to understand what’s going on. Sometimes you have to go back to your roots because you forget all those things you believed in; the daily battle has taken all your strength. Baldwin is always somebody you can read again and say, “Wow!” He’s a little bit of peace and distance in this crazy world.
Baldwin’s manuscript was only 30 pages — the length of a television sitcom. What was the impetus to turn those pages into a feature-length documentary?
I knew I had to tackle Baldwin now. So, do I do a biopic or a documentary? I said, “I’m going to see, but for now I want to do both.” The first thing I need are the rights. So I went to the estate and they opened their doors, opened everything to me as if I were a son of the family, which I became after 10 years. My relationship with Gloria [Karefa-Smart], Baldwin’s younger sister, is a very, very close one. She’s a woman who really helped and totally trusted me, never put any pressure on me about what’s happening with the film. Ten years is a long time. Once I got access to everything, to unpublished material — stuff that nobody else knew — I knew I had a treasure. As a filmmaker, you’re in front of this thing, and you know that you can’t mess up. In this industry, you get one shot.
Yeah, you can do only one film on Ray Charles, not 10.
Plus the added pressure as filmmakers of color. We don’t always get the same opportunities as our white counterparts. They can make flops repeatedly. We can’t.
Exactly. You’ll always have a pistol whip or bullet. I knew I needed to do the ultimate, fundamental Baldwin film. That’s the only way to go, otherwise I would have left it. It took me many trials. I tried to find a way for a mixed-form narrative to come through, but didn’t succeed. So I diverted to the documentary. Then I had to find an entry into that story. It took me four years, with all those things, until one day Gloria gave me the letters [Baldwin sent to his agent] and said, “Raoul, you’ll know what to do with that.” I read them and said, “Whoa, my God! This is the narrative entry point I need.” It’s about the book that was never written.
So you now have these letters. How did you get started?
I had done four years of work and had read Baldwin for the last 30 years. I took notes from the letters and said, “How do I connect all this?” The letters are almost an excuse for everything else, because what you want to tell is all Baldwin. The letters gave me the story line. I had the story of the friendship and the beginning, the middle, and the end — their deaths. This is the main story line of the film. Everything else is a digression. I had to invent that process. I had to write the text, to find the text, to build it like I would for an opera piece, a libretto. I needed a libretto, so that’s what I did with a sort of dramatic structure as well — made sure that it functioned, and that I knew how to do it. I do narrative. I do fiction, documentary. So, for me, the approach is both. Whether I’m writing a documentary or a screenplay, I use poetry, I use humor, and I use dramatic moments.
I’ve read that you chose every image — Nazis burning books, black men being lynched, or the footage from King Kong — very carefully. How challenging was it to find specific images to match Baldwin’s words? Did you have images in mind, then search them out?
It was a mixture of all this. Again, you have to stop and think about the impact; how does the photo relate to the words? Right away, I had to record a voice. That was also an incredible experience. I asked a friend, John Betsch, an African-American musician who lives in Paris, to record the voice for me — that’s the voice we used for the editing. During the recording, John would stop because he was crying. He lived some of those things — the humiliation and all that. The film was always experimenting with real feelings, with real stuff. We were not cheating. It was about how to move each part of that film, how to go over with the music to the next image. Or do you leave it silent? Each layer you add has a consequence. This is what I call montage filmmaking.
Why did you decide to connect the murders of Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin to the race issues in the United States today?
I would have never made a film for the past. The whole meaning of the film is about today. So I had to make sure that that connection was clear. I’m not talking about a past story. The fact that Baldwin's words are so pertinent today — pertinent, and accurate, and strong — means that, politically and philosophically, nothing has changed. On the surface, a lot of things have changed.
We even had a black president.
Exactly. But fundamentally, 30 or 40 years is nothing in the life of a society. The responsibility we have as black or third-world filmmakers is that we could never just say, “I’m making a film.” The films that we make have to be films that will last, because we will not have any other. Hollywood has more than 100 years of cinema history at their back and we have nothing. That’s the sheer reality. As artists, we are privileged to be able to do something that we love, and we also have the responsibility to give back something to the people who shaped us, who made us. My responsibility to my people is also to sustain a story that nobody has told. It’s a lot of responsibility — and you have to find an artistic form, because you cannot do it in a didactic way. We also have to find a way to say it globally. So it’s about using who you are at a certain moment and making a different film that nobody else can make.
In the film, Baldwin reveals that at Dr. King’s funeral he admitted he didn’t want to cry for fear he might not be able to stop. After Malcolm’s death, he said: “I remember weeping in rage rather than in sorrow.” I felt similarly after the presidential election, when my white friends kept asking me if I was crying, if I was devastated. I would tell them, “I can’t afford it.”
I can’t afford it either. People ask me a lot after seeing the film, “Is there any hope? Are you pessimistic?” I say I never use this category, because I have no time for that. I have to work, fight, and find the next steps.
Baldwin said, “I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” Are you an optimist?
No, I don’t even want to address those adjectives. Because what if I said I’m a pessimist? Do I sit down and die? Or do I go and spend the rest of my money buying a big car and have a party for a whole week and then die? No. It’s about what the next step is. You cannot be defined by your feelings.
Baldwin talks about how the advertising industry began to change after acknowledging the economic buying power of black Americans. I read a piece from one reviewer who didn’t see the correlation of that text to the rest of your film. But I did. Black people spend money. A lot of it. Therefore we have a lot of power.
Yes, it’s about capitalism. That’s the elephant in the room. That’s a trap, too. When they keep you focused on the race issue — when they make you angry every single day — you have no room left in your brain to think of yourself as much more than your color, as much more than your place as a unique person in the United States and as a person in the world.
You’re so busy being angry that you don’t take action.
Exactly. That’s what Baldwin understood very early on. That’s what he means when he says, “I can’t let you define who I am. I am going to define who I am.” So that means I am beyond black or white or Chinese — I am a human being. That’s the biggest thing you can be. So it’s the choice of those images that are key, in the sense that they have to be universal — they have to be. I always wanted this film to speak to everybody in the world. It’s not just about Americans; it’s about the entire Western world. It’s about the divide of the world. When you show images of Kodak, everybody in the world knows Kodak. Everybody in the world knows Hollywood films. I grew up watching John Wayne in Haiti, and in the Congo with my communist friends. That’s the education we had. That’s what we call self-power.
Or, as Baldwin noted, “White is a metaphor for power.”
This whole discussion is about economy and about power.
Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin died fighting for the rights of black Americans — killed while still in their 30s. Decades later, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones were murdered just for being black, and they were 17, 12, and seven respectively. How do you make sense of this?
I would say that nothing has changed. The instruments have changed; the cultural story lines have changed, but not the fundamentals. The system wants to make sure that one part of its citizens are not being treated correctly because, as Baldwin said, “They don’t know what to do with us.”
His exact words were, “They needed us to pick the cotton and now they don’t need us anymore. Now they’re going to kill us all off.”
Yes. He also said, “We have to face it, and then engage and make a decision and take responsibility.” Those are strong words. It’s time for you to take it — all of us, also the white people — because it’s not a black problem, it’s a problem for the whole country.
Baldwin says, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. […] It is not a very pretty story,” and asks, in another essay, “What can we do? […] I know no matter how it comes about that it will be bloody; it will be hard.” Do you agree that this fight for freedom has to be bloody and hard?
We the people make history. History is not something that is written and just happened. We influence that history and whether it’s going to be bloody or not. Harry Belafonte also says that in the film. It’s about taking responsibility. If we want it not to be bloody, we will work toward that. If we do nothing, it will be bloody. That’s why, beyond the anger, we need the analysis, we need the reflection, we need to find a discourse, we need to find the reasons. The best thing to do right now is to stop watching the news, stop watching those so-called pundits. People are into opinions. I don't care about your opinion. Show me the numbers. Show me the proof of what you are saying. Show me the money and who is profiting from that? It’s about that — the money.
Michelle Amor is a screenwriter and producer. She is also an assistant clinical professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University and co-chair of the Writers Guild of America-West’s Committee of Black Writers.