Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary framed around the words of “Remember This House,” the unfinished manuscript of James Baldwin’s proposed memoir about the civil rights era and his relationships with three slain leaders of the movement—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Through the voice-over of Samuel L. Jackson, Peck brings to life Baldwin’s written words while weaving in a variety of archival clips of Baldwin himself, unpacking the history of United States’ ill treatment of blacks.
In a recent episode of the Slate podcast Represent, Aisha Harris spoke with Peck about adapting the controversial writer for the screen and the utility of political art. Ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday, where I Am Not Your Negro is up for Best Documentary, below is a transcribed and edited excerpt from that conversation. You can check out the full episode in the audio player below.
Aisha Harris: As I understand it, it took you almost a decade from when you conceived it until now, when it’s here. Obviously a decade is a very long time, and then, America did not have a black president. We didn’t have these high-profile police shootings. And we see these things in the film—what do you think is the biggest change you’ve seen since you first started this project, up until now?
Raoul Peck: Well that’s the thing. I never wanted to be current in the sense that I follow the news, I follow the historical moment of the day. It was always, for me, to go back to the fundamentals. That’s the perfect proof that it’s the right approach, because no matter what would have happened in this country, Baldwin would be as impactful as he is now with the new president as if it was Hillary Clinton. On the level of change and transformation, no matter who was president, the situation did not move the way it should have moved today.
That’s the sad part about it. It also speaks to how important his work was—but it’s also kind of sad that that’s the case.
Yes, yes. And it shows how important it is to step back a bit and try to understand what’s going on, and not just follow up whatever is the flavor of the day. You get confused, you don’t understand, in fact, what’s going on. Baldwin had already written those words, 40, 50 years ago. And we should ask ourselves: How come they are so pertinent, so right, so impactful? Because he touches the real problem of this country, in particular—the fact that there are two parallel worlds that exist and never mixed, that we never have that conversation, as they call it, and that the structural reason of discrimination of poverty was never addressed. It’s not because we elected a black president that it will change anything. Baldwin has a quote saying that—because they ask him the question What is it, for you, if we finally will have a black president in this country? He says, “Well, the real question is not who’s going to be the first black president. The real question is, what country is he going to be the president of?” That’s exactly the real question.
I see parallels between Baldwin and [the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo] Patrice Lumumba, who you did both a documentary on—called Death of a Prophet—and then you also, about a decade later, made a feature film [about him]. Do you consider Baldwin to be a prophet?
He behaved like a prophet, because his words are so strong. His words have survived him. He was a preacher at the age of 14, so he learned how to speak to people and how to speak to adults and how to not only be himself but also to be above himself and above everything else—to have a distance from whatever is happening, to find the core of the reality and put it back to you in a way that makes sense.
It’s so true. Ever since I saw your film last week … I went back and reread “The Devil Finds Work,” which a lot of is also weaved into your film. Man, it’s just still so, so relevant—and like you said, very impactful. And what I think is interesting about your film is the fact that his words are really all we hear throughout the film. There are occasions where we have clips of him in the Dick Cavett interviews and doing other speeches, and we might hear other folks asking him questions, but it’s mostly his voice. Why did you choose to use—in addition to “Remember This House”—“The Devil Finds Work” and other excerpts from his later period?
From the beginning, my project was always: How do I bring Baldwin back? How do I bring those words—these words that have been so important in my life and in the life of many other people and many other generations? In a time when we really need it, where there is an absence of an authoritative voice, intellectual voice, and progressive voice. And Baldwin is exactly that. I knew that I would not make a film with—I didn’t want to have any interpreter of Baldwin, I didn’t want any talking head about the work of Baldwin. It was not going to be a biography. It was about Baldwin speaking to us today. So I have to make sure that it’s his word, it’s him, it’s his thinking, and he’s looking at us and talking directly to us.
Creatively, it was very difficult to get to that point, of course. “Remember This House” gave me the sort of thread storyline about the death of those three friends—in fact the life and the death, the assassination, of those three friends—which was the core impulse for Baldwin to write this book. But of course, because my purpose was to bring Baldwin back and to bring Baldwin’s words back, I went through other stuff that was, for me, as important. “Devil Finds Work,” of course, but there are other essays that I quote and that I use. All those underlined sentences, in all the Baldwin books I had—you always tend to underline stuff that you like in a book.
That’s why when I say this film took 10 years to make, it took much longer if I count all those materials that I’ve worked with over the years. So I went back to those books. And in fact with Baldwin, if you start underlining, the whole book basically will be underlined. So it was about, to bring all of this in one film, in one document, that of course shouldn’t be didactic but should also be a film—an entertaining film. I don’t think that it has to be a contradiction that you can have pleasure seeing a film and at the same time educate yourself and find yourself through this film.