When Raoul Peck was Oscar-nominated this year for his documentary I Am Not Your Negro, the politically-minded Haitian filmmaker was gratified that 10 years of work and a lifetime of absorbing the writing of James Baldwin had paid off. What made the awards attention all the more prescient was that three of his fellow nominees were African Americans. Roger Ross Williams was nominated for Life, Animated, Ava DuVernay for 13th and Ezra Edelman won for OJ: Made in America.
“It was not so much a competition for me as we all know each other,” explains Peck, singling out DuVernay, who had worked on his 2000 feature, Lumumba, about the murdered leader of the independent Congo. “In fact it’s about how we are all trying to respond to today’s situation.”
Baldwin, who died from stomach cancer at the age of 63, the very same age Peck is now, is best known for his novel-length collections of essays, The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son, and his novel Another Country. Given the amount of exclusive material Peck had at his disposal, courtesy of Baldwin’s younger sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, the filmmaker decided the film should be spoken entirely in Baldwin’s words. Samuel L Jackson brings gravitas to the dialogue Baldwin doesn’t speak himself, with the actor, who likes to make money from his popcorn movies, clearly doing this one for a pittance. It’s a film that matters.
What is it about James Baldwin’s writing that appeals to you?
Baldwin was a humanist. He was not just about colour, race or class; he wanted us to see the bigger picture.
Horace Ové from Trinidad once came to the Sydney Film Festival to promote his own Baldwin documentary. Why does Baldwin have such a huge appeal for Caribbean filmmakers?
Horace and I are good friends, by the way. The common explanation is that people from the Caribbean have a different historical perspective. In Haiti, we learn very early on about our own history, which is a glorious history. We fought against the most powerful army in the world and won. [The Haitian Revolution, from 1791 to 1804, was a successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves against the French.] We know that history is possible.
So when you look at the United States, when people like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte came from the Caribbean, they had a different education and view of the world. They had an instrument to defend themselves and they knew not to indulge in the same kind of anger as African Americans. That’s a discussion I’ve had with many African-American friends who say this country forces you to be angry every day. That's a way to keep them down as well, because they don’t have any time to think of themselves as human beings.
After Baldwin moved to France, he called the huge population of Algerians “the n*****s of France”.
There are many different perspectives to that. By coming to France, Baldwin discovered he was an American first and then a black American, so that gave him a different perspective. He understood there were many ways to see the reality and he saw that the position of the people from the Caribbean was not the same as the Arabs or the same as the black Africans, and that was an incredible discovery for him.
Something that makes I Am Not Your Negro special is that you had exclusive rights to Baldwin’s writing.
Normally you ask for the rights for a book or an article or an essay, but I wanted the rights to everything. So I wrote to the estate and normally they are known for being very hard, but I had a response within three days. They invited me to come to Washington DC and I met with Gloria Karefa-Smart, James Baldwin’s younger sister, who had been working with him since the age of 21. I told her what I wanted and she basically said yes to everything, that I could have access to his published and unpublished material, to his private letters, photos and notes.
Then in our conversation I realised she knew my films, particularly Lumumba [about Patrice Lumumba, the murdered leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] which was a beholden film to her. She knew the African leaders the film was about, and for some reason she trusted me to try and bring Baldwin back. She never came to me, even after five years, asking, “Raoul, where is the film?” She actually protected me, which meant nobody else could have access to the rights. This is unprecedented in the film industry, which is all about money.
What was it like when you read the 30 pages from his unwritten novel, Remember this House?
I had been working on the film for four years trying to find a mixed form between narrative and documentary. I needed to find something original, something organic to somehow make the ultimate Baldwin film. One day, Gloria gave me a pile of notes and on the cover was Remember this House. The notes were for a book Baldwin wanted to write. In one of the letters, he said it would be his most important book – the story of America told through the lives of a few of his friends, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. To have the ideas for a book that was never written was like having a mystery novel, so I knew I had this open door to my movie.
Do you think things changed in the US during Barack Obama’s presidency?
There is a response from Baldwin about that. He said the important question is not who will be the next black president, but what country will he be the president of? And that happened to Obama. He was alone and all the people who helped elect him did not continue the fight. Everyone sat on their sofas watching TV while the Republicans were on the street and Congress was against him. This is politics, you know. You are the master of your own history, that's what I learnt from those men [King, Malcolm X and Evers]. You can’t just sit back and hope that democracy will be fixed. Democracy is an active process.
JFK once referred to Baldwin as Martin Luther Queen. He had a big personality.
Baldwin’s gayness was part of who he was, but it didn’t make his life easier. At the same time, it made him sensitive to certain issues, and early in his life he was uncomfortable as he felt a conflict about his sexuality and human relationships. He had his best friend of the time commit suicide. They were in love but they couldn't express that, and they didn't know what it was. At the same time, he was having relationships with women as well. It takes time in life, especially when your whole environment doesn’t accept that or doesn't even know that. You don't know who to go to in order to clarify whatever feelings you have. His sexuality was one of the reasons he moved to France.
It was after the move, at age 24, when he flourished as an incredible writer and astute observer of life.
You need to study Baldwin because each one of his sentences has an incredible philosophical, political point of view. It’s very rich and it’s up to you to find that response in his work. I did that all my life. When I was troubled by some unanswered questions, I could just read Baldwin and feel at peace again. Somehow he always had the bigger picture and he reconciled you with yourself, and I think he’s still doing that. One of the big joys of this film is the way people are now going back to his writing. The response has been incredible with people talking afterwards in the lobby and parking lots. Many are starting to buy his books again and that's the most important thing in the whole story.
I Am Not Your Negro is now in limited release around Australia.