‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is Raoul Peck’s essential new doc – we talk to him about Hollywood and understanding history
Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro wants you to reconsider the media landscape. “To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality,” goes one passage. “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are....these images are designed not to trouble, but to reassure. They also weaken our ability to understand the world as it is.”
The words in the film, recited by Samuel L. Jackson, belong entirely to James Baldwin. No interviews, no talking heads; just Baldwin. The radical author, a black homosexual in the public eye, attempted a book in 1979 called Remember This House: a recollection of his friendships with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, three civil rights activists assassinated by the age of 40. It was to expose the structural racism of America and Hollywood. Baldwin only wrote 30 pages and died in 1987.
In I Am Not Your Negro, Peck resurrects the unfinished manuscript. Baldwin’s words are juxtaposed with images of the past and present, forming a collage that suggests little has changed. In 1968, Baldwin was asked, naively, on Dick Cavett’s chat show: “Why aren’t the negroes optimistic? It’s getting so much better. There are negro mayors. There are negroes in sports. There are negroes in politics.” Baldwin, of course, knew better.
Half a century on, history seems to be repeating itself. What Baldwin wrote in the 1970s resonated then, and it still resonates now, worryingly so, with the cultural commentary cutting deep into the rotting innards of society. Basically, I Am Not Your Negro is essential viewing, and here we speak to Raoul Peck, the filmmaker behind it all, about piecing the puzzle together.
Why did you pick I Am Not Your Negro as the title?
Raoul Peck: For a long time, the title was Remember This House. But I felt I had to be as direct as Baldwin is, in the way he speaks. I knew I had to find a title from where I stand, and from where Baldwin stands. I Am Not Your Negro is exactly that. It says something without being aggressive. It says: “This is where I stand. Let’s talk.”
Baldwin criticised cowboy films and loathed Stephen Fetchit. Are those kinds of racial politics still alive in modern filmmaking?
Raoul Peck: Baldwin showed that Hollywood movies are a machine of propaganda that can be very brutal or very soft. It doesn’t have to be obvious. Baldwin teaches you how to watch those films, and what’s the reality they’re telling you. Film transports ideology, film transports culture, film transports a point of view of life and history. It’s never innocent.
To put it simply, as a black man, I started watching films at the age of six and I’ve since seen the bad guys changing race – between the African savages, to the Native Americans, and then the blacks and the Arabs and the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Look at Rambo, it’s exactly that. And now it’s mostly Arabs and terrorists. That’s what Hollywood does. The battle that they can’t win on the battlefield, they win in cinema. Yes, it’s happening today. You can binge a TV series or watch a reality show, and they’re not innocent. They take a lot of room in your brain, and you don’t have any space left for your own thoughts. They give you a scripted reality. It’s an ideological tool. Baldwin wrote that 50 years ago, saying the entertainment industry functions like narcotics. This is exactly what’s happening.
So why do those words from 50 years ago still resonate now?
Raoul Peck: Basically, it’s the same system. When he wrote that, there were only three TV channels in the US. Now, there’s cable, day and night. You don’t have that much time in your life, so imagine the invasion of your brain and what kind of damage it does to your brain. We have a superficial view of the world, without touching the essential structural aspect of it. For me, this film is a way to take some distance. When you see that in 50 years nothing fundamental has changed, it allows you to see the bigger picture.
Do you wish you could re-edit the film to incorporate what’s happened in the past few months in America?
Raoul Peck: I have to make sure I’m not dating my movie. I’m not a journalist. I’m not running the news.
“We are one history, and if we don’t understand the connections, we don’t understand anything” – Raoul Peck
But viewers now, I imagine, are watching it with modern politics on their mind.
Raoul Peck: But when I make a film, I try to make it still valuable in 50 years’ time. The film is still a story, and you can always watch a story, no matter when you watch it. I created a character that is Baldwin. So when you see the film, you will go into that story. Of course, there is a connection with your current life. When I use Ferguson, it’s because it’s an incredible symbol, and I use it in an artistic way that is not just news. I frame it in a cinematic way. You can be accurate about the present time, but without making news. I’m not a journalist.
Why do you use Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” for the end credits? That song feels quite present.
Raoul Peck: I had to close the circle. I had to make a real link to today’s situation. There are new ways to fight. I respect what Kendrick Lamar is doing. I like his lyrics, I like his music, and I think he’s continuing a way to address the reality. I use all sorts of music – from jazz to spiritual to blues to classic – and I think the rap of Kendrick Lamar has a place in that context.
There’s a cut to Doris Day that’s quite noticeable because it’s more abstract than, say, footage of old cowboy films.
Raoul Peck: I’m sure your generation knows less about Doris Day, but she was an icon for Hollywood… well, they didn’t call it “whiteness” at the time, but it’s the clean, very romantic Hollywood image. I was submitted to that image as well. I loved watching Doris Day films, but it’s an illusion of real life. Baldwin deconstructs that image. Even the most progressive Hollywood movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones – both at the time considered very progressive – were part of his criticism. They used Sidney Poitier for this image that didn’t tell the truth. They brought an image of the black man that wasn’t romantic.
In the film, Baldwin says: “To look around the United States today is enough to make prophets and angels weep. This is not the land of the free. It is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave.” Why do you then cut straight to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant?
Raoul Peck: I was making sure people understand I’m not making a film about the past. It’s now. Baldwin speaks about young people being lost in this “land of the free”. Elephant and those school killings, it’s the craziest thing that’s happened. The whole thing about gun control and how people are resisting. Everything is linked. You can link it to the absence of gun control and also this country’s violent past. Or John Wayne killing Indians – kids grow up on that kind of image. The images, words and music are so that you understand everything is linked. We are one history, and if we don’t understand the connections, we don’t understand anything. We are blind people that are drowned by the industry. They can send you to war and you want to kill people without knowing why. So, knowing your history is important, and it’s understanding how your history is linked to everything, to money, to making profit, to wars, to racism. That’s what I hope the film does. It makes you step back and realise, “Wow, I never saw it that way.”
I Am Not Your Negro is in cinemas on 7 April.