Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is not just a film. It is a lightning rod bound to electrify every member of the audience, and its timeliness couldn’t be more urgent. Every word in the picture belongs to author and poet James Baldwin, one of America’s most invaluable social critics, whose unfinished novel, Remember This House, serves as Peck’s primary source material. Samuel L. Jackson’s narration is weaved seamlessly with Baldwin’s own voice, as Peck and his editor, Alexandra Strauss (“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”), craft a mesmerizing mosaic of American history, both real and imagined, illustrating how our myths tend to outlive our collective reality. Among the countless unforgettable moments is a rousing speech delivered by Baldwin during a 1965 debate in response to Bobby Kennedy’s correct prediction that in 40 years, America would elect its first black president. If there is any justice, that monologue (which I’ve embedded below) will one day be as well-known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Two days after earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, Peck spoke with RogerEbert.com about the importance of Baldwin’s work in his life, his efforts to transcend the dominant Hollywood narrative and the steps that must be taken in order for real change to occur.
“I Am Not Your Negro” could easily form an unofficial trilogy with your fellow Oscar nominees, Ava DuVernay’s “13th” and Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America,” which are all linked by Baldwin’s observation that “the story of the Negro in America IS the story of a America.”
Oh yes. That’s why I don’t put those films against each other. They all belong together. They’re all part of the same story. The only difference is that Baldwin had made these observations 40, 50, 60 years ago. He helped us come back to the fundamentals by providing an analysis of who we are in this country, what is the history of this country, and what we need to acknowledge in order to build any future together. Baldwin is the one who gave us the instruments to analyze what we are today and where we come from.
He deserves to be as celebrated as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. When did you first encounter his work?
He crossed my path very early on as a teenager. Somebody gave me his book of essays, The Fire Next Time, and it basically changed my life. I was suddenly faced with a different explanation of what I felt or what I saw around me that I hadn’t been able to put into words myself. It was so profound and so provocative and so true. I read everything he had ever written, and throughout my life, Baldwin was a permanent companion. You read his work in times of confusion, in times of trauma, in times of doubt about not only your private life, but your political life as well. He is a profound philosopher and critic who saw through the dominant culture of this world, and the power structure of this country, and he did it in a very efficient, artistic and human way. He speaks not only to the scholars and intellectuals, but to the men in the streets, and this is a very powerful and rare skill to possess.
Many of us in this country have forgotten about him because we haven’t drawn the right conclusions from the end of the civil rights movement. We forgot that most of the leadership was killed. Three of its main leaders were killed and we built a monument to only one of them, while choosing to look at only one aspect of that particular person, the peace-loving preacher. We forgot that Martin Luther King, Jr., changed his discourse toward the end of his life because he understood that the real fundamental problem of this country was not just race, it was class. It was the economical situation of not only poor blacks but also the poor white part of the population and everything in between. That’s why it was comfortable for many people to push Baldwin aside.
It’s mind-blowing to realize how young these trailblazers were when they died, including Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Yes. We ignore our own history. We ignore all these values and valuable people who really changed everything, who sacrificed their own lives for a better America. We wake up now as if we are in a total state of ignorance enforced by the leadership in this country. It’s incredible how this ignorance encompasses all levels of society—the press, academia, the entertainment industry and politics. That is why we need Baldwin’s voice to help us come through this cloud of confusion.
Tell me about your collaboration with editor Alexandra Strauss.
As you can imagine, it was a long process. There is a reason why the whole project took me ten years to finish. Alexandra has worked with me on other films, so she knows my work very well. I knew that I could rely on her even when I was shooting different films, because I made several other films during that decade. I could leave her for one month after giving her 30 pages of notes. Then I would come back and there was a cut in front of me that was solid. Then I would let her go for two or three months to work on another film. When she came back, I had a new list of notes. It was a constant back and forth, and the same was true of my work with the archivist team. They would have their own lists and they would come back with hours of material to sift through. I’d find a footnote in one of Baldwin’s books and say, “We need to find that piece of music,” or, “We need to find that clip.” It was really like detective work at times.
I knew that I had to create the whole Baldwin ambiance through the music and the sound. We treated this film exactly as we would treat a narrative film, in terms of recreating sound and the images, while playing with the edit and the silence. I used all the cinematic instruments that I knew how to use in narrative films. It was important that we gave ourselves the time to find the best way to make this film work without utilizing any talking heads. I only wanted there to be Baldwin’s words throughout the film, with no single word coming from any interpreters or other voices. I wanted there to be a direct confrontation between Baldwin’s words and the audience, and that meant I had to find a voice that would not only mimic Baldwin, but adopt his soul. Someone who could take his words and give them back without distance, as if it was Baldwin himself speaking them.
Your film brilliantly illustrates how cinema can shape one’s misguided understanding of American culture, particularly in your unforgettable juxtaposition of a Doris Day musical with images of a lynching.
That juxtaposition came directly from Baldwin, when he wrote that Doris Day and Gary Cooper were the most grotesque examples of innocence that this country has ever seen. When you have this kind of sentence and this kind of judgment, it makes my job very easy. I just watched everything Doris Day and Gary Cooper ever did until I found the right clips and the right way to link them. It was after viewing a lot of different films that I came up with the idea of showing both of them dancing. Everything in this film came together because we had the time to be accurate and to try different things until the right ideas, the right form and the right mixture came together. Though a lot of the ideas come from Baldwin, they also partly stem from my own mythology, since I grew up watching American cinema as well. Even in Haiti, I saw John Wayne movies. American cinema has always been the dominant cinema throughout the world, and people tend to forget that. People aren’t just seeing these films in California or Florida. They’re seeing them in Haiti, in Congo, in France, in Italy and in Asia. That is the power of Hollywood.
Hollywood has been very efficient in telling these wonderful stories of total whiteness, where great heroes have a happy ending. In doing that, they are also conveying an image of Native Americans, who all have been decimated by the hero, John Wayne, in the same way that they portrayed Rambo as the avenger for the Vietnam War. That sort of myth-making is what Hollywood is best at, and we are so immersed in it that we forget that it’s not an accurate portrayal of the way the world is. It’s not the real narrative, it’s just the dominant narrative. There is very little truth in it, if any, and most of time, it’s just upside down. What Baldwin does is completely deconstruct that dream machine and show where these stories come from. We might think that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a very progressive film because it went much further than any other Hollywood film went in those years. But at the same time, even a film like this was telling all of the black people in attendance that in order to be accepted by the majority, you need to be very eloquent, you need to be a doctor, you need to be handsome and well-dressed, and when you are all of that, only then will you have a chance to get the girl. It is a double-edged message.
One of the most powerful scenes you selected was from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 crime drama, “No Way Out,” where Sidney Poitier is beaten by Richard Widmark, embodying the insecurities that play a crucial role in fueling prejudice.
Baldwin wrote, “You can’t lynch me without becoming a monster yourself.” The idea that you could kill another human being and feel good in your skin is totally monstrous. When I found that clip with Richard Widmark, I went, “Oh my god.” I had watched the film a long time ago, but seeing it again in the context of my film made it all the more powerful. The thing about Hollywood is that it does have a very particular narrative, but there are jewels you can find within it. There is a wonderful documentary, “The Celluloid Closet,” that served as an inspiration for my film. It’s about being gay in Hollywood, and illuminates the double-meaning and subtext that can found in so many “straight” narratives. In “I Am Not Your Negro,” we included the ending of “In the Heat of the Night” where Sidney Poitier is saying goodbye to the sheriff. The two men look at each other, and Baldwin noted that Hollywood writers normally would’ve ended that sort of scene with a kiss. I played with those expectations just as Baldwin played with them, and for a writer and filmmaker, it’s incredible to be able to play with that material in the way that we did.
Exactly! In fact, it’s a common ground. The question now is who dictates the narrative. We didn’t own that Hollywood narrative, the narrative was put upon us and was using us. Now you are starting to see all these filmmakers and writers who are capturing their own narrative and looking back and criticizing everything that has been made before, while unearthing the skeletons. As Baldwin would put it, “all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak.” In order to keep doing that, we need to also have the power to decide what is being made. That’s where this whole discussion of #OscarsSoWhite falls short. You cannot just make a very limited and superficial change. You need to change the power structure. That includes the people who give the green light, the people who decide what films will live and what films will die, and what subject is of interest. This is when you will really be able to make actual change in Hollywood and the Oscars. It’s just by chance that you have four black filmmakers who are nominated for Best Documentary. I started my film ten years ago, Ava probably started her’s two or three years ago—she probably had that idea long before—and Ezra is the same. So it’s just a congruence of circumstances that they got finished this year. Our nominations are not the result of some sort of reform or structural change in the system.
I was also struck by your choice to juxtapose images of reality TV with Baldwin’s words, considering we now have a reality TV star as our Commander-in-chief.
At its core, that sort of programming is very central to what we experience every day. It’s part of the noise, the invasion of our brain. The narrative has only gotten thicker over time—it’s more difficult to locate your own brain in all of this confusion. Don’t forget, Baldwin wrote that the way the entertainment industry works is no different from the narcotics industry. He wrote these observations decades ago when there were only three channels on TV, so you can imagine what his words suggest about today. Baldwin lived in an era where books were more readily available and you didn’t need to have so many screens around you. You didn’t have as many commercials, you didn’t have Twitter or Facebook, and you didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle. He was always feeling the impact of that noise, so just picture, all these years later, how little space is left available for your own thoughts. How few chances you have to put some distance between yourself and whatever is happening around you on a daily basis. Right now, the machine keeps us totally busy. If you don’t react against it, you’ll end up letting yourself go and become the perfect consumer. That’s what they want.