The man of color has faced perpetual conflict for as long as he has been. Standing over the abysmal void, adorning his shackles, he is a man that has known tragedy.
I Am Not Your Negro, originally an unfinished tale by the late James Baldwin, now overseen by director Raoul Peck, seeks to address the African-American narrative. Using a myriad of films and source footage to exemplify Baldwin’s story, Peck creates a documentary with captivating, larger-than-life scenes. The picture displays, in detail, the historical relevance of the black struggle against the American dream, executing that facet extremely well. Thankfully, The Knockturnal was able to score a round-table interview with the genius behind the process.
Q: In regards to this project, were you tempting to primarily make this a continuation of his thirty pages or was it something you wanted to involve the contemporary issues and elaborate more on the political issues of racial tension?
A: It’s totally the contrary. I don’t know any project I did that had nothing really organic with me, my own life, my engagement, my political engagements. Baldwin is somebody who I had read early on, and he never left me. I mean, I always go back to Baldwin, you know. There are very few authors who are that important in your life, and Baldwin is one. If, I meet a lot of young people, and we start talking, I ask: “did you read Baldwin?” and if they say no, I say “read him first and then let’s have a conversation.” Because you cannot have not read Baldwin if you’re a black person, or if you’re somebody who is trying to understand what this country is, and by the way the rest of the world is. So, it’s key. It’s a classic. It’s a thing you need to know. So, for me, it was always about when do I find a way to bring him back.
I saw, over the years – I was a young man during the Civil Rights Movement – and I saw how most of our leaders had been killed, imprisoned, or went in exile, or both, through different ways, you know. And then, we lost the tradition of engaging; we lost the tradition of organizing. We thought that when we had Black History Month that we made it, you know. That we don’t need to do anything, we just “consume” our old history, year after year. So, I felt it was time for Baldwin to just come back, to please come and help us, you know. In the film, there was a sentence that we cut out, where Baldwin was just saying: “we really need a Malcolm now,” you know, and I use it like: “we really need a Baldwin now,” you know. So, once that idea was there, the question was, first of all, to get the rights, and I didn’t have a particular book to use, where I could say “I want to use that book for film,” I knew I wanted Baldwin for the film. So, it was hard to bring his words to the forefront. And in a way that was direct, raw, and as he would himself do. So, artistically, that was already a very complicated thing to imagine.
So, I wrote to the state and, you know, everyone told me “forget it,” they’ll never answer; they are known for being very closed up, and the answered me within three days. And they told me “come to Washington and meet with us,” in which I did, and I met Gloria, and James Baldwin’s younger sister, who had been working for him since she was 21. She went with him to Africa for the first time as a young girl, and then I knew, because she told me “I saw your film,” and for her, it was an incredible film, something that was dear for her because it was her history as well. She knew a lot of those young, African leaders, and yeah, it was a story of her generation, you know. And she opened the doors for me. She just gave me access to everything. It’s something that never happened in our industry. Never. It’s always about money; it’s always about, you know, you get an option for one year, you pay money for that option after a year; you have to renew the option, and, with them, it was never about that. I had access to everything, published, unpublished, screen plays, theatre plays, everything.
Q: How would Baldwin receive your film today?
A: I hoped that this would not be a question because I felt that I did something that he already did. I can’t separate that. That’s why, when people ask me, I say I’m just a messenger. This is all Baldwin. There’s nothing of me where I sat down and wrote. The whole text that you hear — it’s all Baldwin. We went out of our ways for every single sentence — every single word — is Baldwin. The only corrections I made sometimes for purpose of comprehension is that in the writing, he says “Bill Miller” but he (Baldwin) just says “Bill”, he doesn’t say “Miller”. But I made sure that people knew that it was his former teacher, Bill Miller. Because, in the paragraph before, he’d explain who Bill Miller is, but the phrase I took did not have the word, so I would add that kind of thing. But, besides that, it’s untouched. It’s edited, it’s you know — the more I would edit, the more I’d feel free to build more and more completed and complex story. But it was really about — this was Baldwin; this is the big puzzle of Baldwin’s words; how do I put it together in a dramatic structure, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And tell a story.
I Am Not Your Negro heralds the physical and ideological warfare between the black and white spectrum; showcasing the bitter realism of uncensored racial tension. Famous players from the Civil Rights Movement are mentioned as Baldwin reminisces about those who attempted great change in the face of punishing adversity. Assuming a tasteful atmosphere of jazzy and classical tunes, with the flavorful commentary of Samuel Jackson as Baldwin himself, we’re treated to an array of emotional trials, drenched in the complications of social leprosy.
Q: Who led you to Baldwin?
A: There are many sources. Like I did, later on, whenever I worked with a younger crowd. I gave them books. I gave them Baldwin.
Q: Oh, so you were given Baldwin?
A: Of course, of course.
Q: Was there any difficulty in expanding Baldwin’s 30-page opus into a full, documentary feature?
A: No. Because the work on the film for me is much more than those 10 years (time in which it took to create). It’s all the 30 years prior. So, where all the books that I underlined; all the ideas that I underlined, that I put aside? All of these were put back on my table. So, I knew what I needed from those 30 pages was just a trick, to go inside and tell the story. That was the organic reason that I needed. Because, once you’re in front of this incredible amount of work and gems, you better find a good way to tell the story. Like, I’m gonna tell you the story that James Baldwin wrote? No. You go into his own methodology and find the story in the story, to tell it. I wanted this to be original and for a film-maker, what else is more original than to say: “well, there’s a book that was supposed to be written, and it was never wrote.” And the idea was — when I got it, it was automatic. Everything came to piece together.
You know, you say: “wow, he never wrote it,” but knowing Baldwin, he had been taking notes. I got part of those notes, and I got where he wanted to go. But then, I know most of his work — I can’t see what else can he write. So the idea was, he wrote it, he just didn’t put it together. So I went through and pieced it together. So, that’s an idea that motivates me. I have a red-line to follow. That’s what I didn’t have. That’s what I was looking for. That’s what you do as an artist, or as a musician, or as a composer, you need that little thing that you can look for long time. You can find it in a month, or you can find it in five years. And when you have the luxury — that’s what I had — to wait.
I didn’t have an estate calling me every year saying: “Raoul, you’ve had the option for one year, are you renewing it,” or after two or three years: “Raoul, it’s been three years, now, where’s the film?” After five years: “Come on, we don’t believe any more in this film.” So, when you have the luxury that I had — I was producing it myself — I was my own master. So, it’s the luxury of the world we live. Our industry. The film is the very result of that. Otherwise it’s an impossible film. Nobody will give you the money for that. Nobody will wait for you that long. So, when I had that, I had better made sure, that when I come up with something, it has to be original; it has to be strong; it has to make sense. The whole body of work, would be impossible to make.
I Am Not Your Negro hits theatres on February 3rd.