108: James Baldwin and 'I Am Not Your Negro'
February 8, 2017 5:15 p.m.
Episode 108: James Baldwin and 'I Am Not Your Negro'
Filmmaker Raoul Peck talks about his Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" based on the writings of James Baldwin, and his unfinished book on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film points out how resonant Baldwin's words still are and how maybe now we should listen more intently.
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 108: James Baldwin And 'I Am Not Your Negro'
Beth Accomando: Welcome to another edition of listeners supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast and although I don’t sound like it, I’m Beth Accomando.
Forgive the delay in the podcast and for the raspy voice, but I can’t think of a better film with which to celebrate Black History Month this year than the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The film is based on the writing of James Baldwin and it just received an Oscar nomination for best documentary. I’ll be speaking with director Raoul Peck about his 10-year struggle to bring the film to fruition. Here’s part of the trailer.
Movie Trailer [00:00:43] – [00:01:44]
Beth Accomando: We are at a time in American history when people who speak the truth seemed to have harder time being heard and when racial divisions have become intensified. So a documentary about James Baldwin right now is especially compelling, because he pointed out painful truth about race in American more than half a century ago. Truths that were mostly ignored then but resonate today with a new found passion and urgency. Some reviews of the film have called Baldwin’s word prophetic. But that’s not entirely accurate. They were simply Baldwin’s assessment of the racial issues as he experienced them and they sound prophetic now only because they weren’t heeded at the time. He was an incisive observer and it’s troubling that many of the things he was critical of 50 years ago, still exist today. That’s not prophetic, that’s infuriating. But the voice of a thoughtful introspective and thoroughly uncompromising Black poet who engaged in lengthy debates in academic halls as well as on mainstream television, may still go ignored at the time of 30 seconds sound bites and 140 character tweets. Although, if he were alive today he probably could have mastered those. Raoul Peck’s documentary uses Baldwin’s own words delivered by the author himself in archival footage and brought a new life through Samuel L. Jackson’s measured vocal performance. The writings are mainly from an unfinished book Baldwin had planned on the three slain Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
[Movie Trailer] [00:03:14] – [00:03:52]
Beth Accomando: When I was a teenager Baldwin’s writings initially confused and challenged me. I’d grown up in what I considered a liberal home. My grandmother was French and had taught the children of Malcolm X and always cited them among the brightest she’d ever had. My grandfather was Chinese but worked in a UN as a French diplomat, helping to found UNICEF and also working in under-developed African countries. I grew up with people of all colors, various races and many languages coming through the house and thinking nothing of it. My parents encouraged diversity in the music they played, the books they read, and the movies they saw. I remember them talking about the civil rights movement and what people like the Kennedys were doing and offering high praise for African-Americans like Martin Luther King, Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. But when I first read and heard Baldwin he challenged me to re-think how I looked at race because my perspective had only been from a White point of view.
[Baldwin’s Debate Speech]: Most of the Americans, I’d ever encountered really you know had a Negro friend or a Negro maid or somebody in high school, but they never, you know, or rarely, after the school was over or whatever you know came to my kitchen you know, they were segregated from the school house door. Therefore he doesn’t know, he really does not know what it was like come and live in my house, to going to school and coming back home. He doesn’t know how Negroes live and it comes with the great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and everybody else in the country. I am certain again you know that like, again like most of Americans I have encountered, they have no, I’m sure I have nothing about against Negroes, that’s really not the question. Now, the question is really about that apathy and ignorance which is a price we paid for the segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what’s happening in the other side of the world, because you don’t want to know.
Beth Accomando: At a Cambridge debate in 1965, Baldwin reacted to Robert Kennedy’s comment about Blacks making progress and may be in 40 years there could be a Black President.
[Baldwin’s Debate Speech]: That sounded like a very emancipated statement I suppose to White people. They were not at home when this statement was first heard and did not hear and possibly will never hear, the laughter and the grimness and the scorn this was taking as we did. In the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy and they got it yesterday. And now he is already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.
Beth Accomando: So, well I might have looked at Kennedy’s statement as a positive one about race in America, Baldwin was forcing me to consider it from his Black point of view and seeing something different. It wasn’t about White guilt or placing blame. But rather about seeing the difference between something Whites thought they were giving to Blacks versus something that Blacks had earned and deserved on their own. Similarly I looked to films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones as positive films encouraging tolerance. But Baldwin saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner about inter-racial marriage, as a film that used actors Sydney Poitier against his own Black community. And in the earlier film The Defiant Ones Poitier played a Black convict who escapes from prison, changed to White prisoner played by Tony Curtis.
[Movie Trailer] [00:07:16 – 00:08:39]
Beth Accomando: Again this was Baldwin asking me to look below the surface of this piece of pop entertainment and look beyond what I as a White person saw as well-intentioned effort at racial understanding and instead to interpret it against a more complex dynamic. Peck who was born in Haiti and raised in France, wanted to revisit Baldwin’s words in all their complexity and passion and to evaluate them from the prospective of 2017, looking back on all that has happened in more than half a century since Baldwin published his first book. Baldwin’s fiercely presented his point of view in an attempt to make the White majorities see race relations from a different perspective. Do not see it as a merely a Black problem and do not separate Black history from American history. And it wasn’t about placing blame, but rather about accepting shared responsibility. Here he speaks on the Dick Cavett show. I can’t imagine such a ferocious, eloquent or extended commentary happening on a talk show today outside of maybe Charlie Rose.
[Dick Cavett Show – (Peck’s Speech)] [00:09:43 – 00:11:33]
Beth Accomando: Peck does not include any contemporary commentary in terms of having scholars or critics evaluate what Baldwin said. He gives us only Baldwin in his own words, but Peck does a commentary in the way he cuts contemporary images to those words. So, as Baldwin’s laments the deaths of innocent Blacks in the 1960’s, Peck cut to images of recent deaths of young Blacks who committed no crimes who died at the hands of law enforcement.
[Movie Trailer]: [00:11:58 – 00:12:30]
Beth Accomando: I began my interview with Raoul Peck by asking how this project based on James Baldwin’s writings got started.
Raoul Peck: Well, this is the kind of thing you just don’t decide to do. It was your urge to do. And I met Baldwin’s work very early on in my life, you know, after school and beginning of college. And he changed my life. He changed my way of thinking. He helped me focus on what was essential and not. And he gave me a structure to lean on to analyze the world I was living in. And at that age I was already traveling in many different countries, many different situations and including the United States and already he was a very important person and mentor all my life.
So, 10 years ago when I decided that it was about time to come back to Baldwin, not particularly for me but to for this present generation where I felt the voice of Baldwin is so necessary and missing. We’ve lost most of our important leaders. There is, you know, imagine those three men, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. They were killed before they were 40 and this is exactly the voice that we are all missing.
The Civil Rights Movement was put into sort of institutionalized path and once we built those monuments, once we create a Black History Month, it’s somehow a way to bring part of the movement to a stop. Because the choice was to retain the absurdity of a Martin Luther King who was the peaceful person, the peaceful pastor and Malcolm X who was the racist torch and we forget that those two men becomes not only friends but they have the same political position throughout the end of their lives. And when you read, you know, or listen to Martin Luther King’s speeches in that two years, they were radical and revolutionary and that aspect of Martin Luther King disappeared. So we forget how incredible leaders they were and how they saw through the haze of and confusion of not only racism but of the class relationship in this country. And how important it is. You know, it was never about just being Black. It was also about being poor and being poor as a Black person or a Latino or a White person. They succeeded in dividing us. And that explained a lot about the current situation in this country. There are separation and division where they shouldn’t have been but solidarity in our life and it’s not the case because there is a total ideological confusion.
Beth Accomando: So, at what point did you start making this film because it does come out at a time when despite the fact that a lot of the material is older in terms of when these people wrote and when these people were living, it feels very resonant for today. So, how long was this like in a process?
Raoul Peck: Well, that’s exactly what I felt 10 years ago. I felt coming back to Baldwin, my God, he’s writing about today, and this was before the election of Obama. It’s about what have we kept from this whole Civil Rights Movement? What have really changed since then? What are those structural change and what are the just cosmetic change? And I think we got away all these years with those cosmetic thing. It’s not that police brutality to take just that one aspect had ceased when we decided that there was going to be a Black History Month.
There is a, in the film there is a movement where Medgar Evers is holding a shelf and on it it’s written Stop Police Brutality. That was 60 years ago and you have a picture of Malcolm X holding a newspaper and the front page says, Seven young Black kids killed by the police. And you have the same with Martin Luther King. So, this is not new. The only thing which is new is that we are seeing it on videos. So, this means something about what really happened the last 40-50 years when Dick Cavett is asking James Baldwin you know…
[The Dick Cavett Show (James Baldwin)]: I’m sure you still meet the remark that, what are the Negroes, why aren’t they optimistic? They say but it’s getting so much better, there are Negro mayors, there’s Negroes in all sports, there are Negroes in politics, they are even quoted the Ultimate Athlete of being in television commercials now. I’m glad you’re smiling. It is at once getting much better and still hopeless.
Raoul Peck: The second question should be you know, what did really changed deep down? You know do we don’t have any ghettos anymore? Do we have better schools everywhere? Do we have a Black family where is a father, a mother and children? Do we have family? We have at least two, three, four of them in prisons, generations. So all of these questions are the fundamental questions which Baldwin addressed very early on. And when I, I felt that we were in this hole thinking that we are in the better world when we were just going deeper into that crazy ambience and even the eight years of Obama, yes, they were important and, yes, they made I think a difference but not to a point where it would have made an important and structural change in this country. And just to finish that response Baldwin had responded to a journalist about this very questions. He said that the most important thing is not who will be the same first Negro president, the most important question is what country he is going to be the President of. That’s the real question. And as long as the country itself don’t change, nothing will change. And that’s where Baldwin puts you, confronts you with this reality and tells you, you are part of the problem, you know and it’s specifically the White majority of this country.
[The Dick Cavett Show (James Baldwin)]: What your role in this country and what is your future is in it? How precisely you are going to reconcile yourself to a situation here and how you are going to communicate through the vast, heedless unthinking, cool White majority that you are here? I’m terrified at the moral attitude, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people had reviewed themselves for so long, they really don’t think I’m human, and racist on their conduct, not know what they say, and this means that they have become themselves more monsters.
Raoul Peck: You can’t just hide and think that it’s a Black problem, it’s the problem of the Black population. Baldwin answer to die that, he said, I didn’t invent slavery, I didn’t invent Jim Crow, I did not invent racism. How come I am the one to have to deal with it? Come back and I’m not your nigger as you say. Come back and take your nigger because it’s not my problem anymore.
[The Dick Cavett Show (James Baldwin)]: I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have to agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, of course, to be an optimist, I’m forced to believe that we can deny but ever we must survive. But we need more in this country, essentially the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as a huge part of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people, whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger and the realize a lot what my people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But you think I’m a nigger, as you need it. The question you got to ask yourself, the White population of this country, you got to ask itself, North and south because it’s one country as to the Negro, there’s hundreds in the north and the south, they just said, no, I do this in the way they, you know the way they castrate you and that’s the big fact of the castration, is the American fact. And I’m not belittling you. I mean, you invented it, you the White people invented it, and you got to find out why and the future of the country depends on that, whether I was able to ask that question.
Raoul Peck: And if you want us to deal to get it with it, I will do this but take your part of this burden, don’t lay it on me because I am a man, you know. I don’t know what you are dealing with in constructing that image which is not me and so that contradiction is real and that’s what the film is about.
Beth Accomando: I really liked the way you put the film together because you basically only used his words and archival footage, you don’t have any contemporary person being interviewed or commentating on it. How did you come, how did you decide on the way to actually put this together and to make it?
Raoul Peck: Well, it was, from the beginning it was always my ambition to make sure that there is a direct confrontation between Baldwin’s words and the urchins. I didn’t want anybody in between, I didn’t want any scholar or any interpreter trying to tell what Baldwin is saying or what he means, because his words of clear enough, you know. He’s one of the rare, you know, author that could address himself to any scholar and any intellectual at the same time to be perfectly clear for novel urchins or the men or the women in the street. And so my job was to bring those words directly in all their rawness to the urchins, so it means to make this film in the very particular way, not to have any talking heads and to make sure that at every second of this film you are totally with Baldwin, you are identifying yourself with him. He is the one telling you the story and he is doing that in a very intimate, way you know looking at you and looking at the camera. And this was the whole approach of the film in the choice of the images of the archive in the part of the film that we shot and sorrows and as well the voice and the music you know, it’s the totally perfect Baldwin ambience, you know, we choose most of the music that he either talked about or that he, we knew that he loved or that he used at the certain point in his writing, so it was really a sort of reconstruction of the perfectly James Baldwin work and make sure that his words will stay forever and that we would go back to his writing and make sure that we use it the proper way.
Beth Accomando: I thought it was a very powerful choice to do it that way because the fact that he did write a lot of his stuff decades ago and how relevant it still is really points to the fact how little has changed on some things.
Raoul Peck: And how fundamental his thinking was and how he got to the core of what this country is. That how you become a classic because you can make the difference between what is relevant and what is just cosmetic and suppose to show. And that’s was his analysis, is not only, he is not only telling us what is the history of this country, but he is telling, he is giving us as a well the instrument to continue that analysis and eventually to change the, this reality to a better one.
Beth Accomando: There is a lot of archive material in the film. How difficult was it to find interviews with him and find them in a condition that you could put into a film?
Raoul Peck: The problem was not to find because there was a lot, it was to find them in the good quality, to have access to the rights because as you can imagine we had to either buy them or find them or negotiate them. So it was an incredible work for archive, archivist team and also to make the right choice because ultimately it was not just to put those archive back to back. It had to make sense, it had to make, to be a story and it had to be a story that the one that we wanted to tell. So, it took us a lot of editing and lot of research and a lot of discussion and finding the money, et cetera to make sure that this film would be the way it is and made with all the freedom I could have. I don’t think I could have been able to make this film in a more constraints structure. I don’t think if I did not produce it myself, it would have been very difficult because I would have constantly that pressure of somebody telling me, you know Raoul, where is the film? And I created an environment and also a structure that allow me to you know I could work on it with part of my team or my editor would continue to work on it while I was making another film and come back to it or my editor would go and edit another film so that each time we would come back and work on it, we would have a certain distance and that distance would allow us to separate what was important and what was needed for this story and what was not that interesting. So, layers after layers the film became what it was. And we took the time to make sure that we would stop until we are really satisfied and we spell that every single frame of this film is accurate, it’s impactful, strong, poetic and a great narrative.
Beth Accomando: You have Samuel Jackson reading sections of Baldwin’s work. Why did you choose and how did that work? Is he, he did a great a job and he didn’t do any of his kind of like, it took me a while to recognize that voice.
Raoul Peck: Well, that was the idea and when you say reading is not reading, that’s the thing. If he was reading you know that some time people say, well, he’s the narrator or voice over. No, if he had done that, it would have been the failure. The only way this thing would work is that if we succeed in creating a character. Because you see Baldwin in the film. You see him talking. You hear his real voice and then you hear that voice as well and you had to install an ambience so that it wouldn’t matter going from one voice to the other, because those two voice are the same person because they have the same soul. So, the approach and that same got very quickly as the great actor he is, is that you could not leave any distance between the text and the voice. The voice had to be the person, everything have to be felt. You have to be in the emotion of the text. You have to render the text and everything that is in the text. If you just read that and if you had put any distance, it would not have worked. So it’s really a performance. It’s Samuel Jackson creating a character, so that character is always true as long as you stay in character and that’s what he did in throughout the film.
[Movie Trailer] [00:31:03] – [00:31:45]
Raoul Peck: So, it’s not about Sam Jackson, it’s not about whatever he’s known for or whatever people think that he is. What I wanted is not only a great actor, but somebody also as a human being who has a stand, who has some sort street creditability and respect because no matter what people sometimes say about his choices of film but he has a real life as well. He has a pass and I think he felt these words say something to him. He comes from the south, he know those words, what those words mean in his life or the life of his parents, of his family, so this is what I wanted from him and he just did it splendid.
Beth Accomando: Yes, it worked very well in the film. It was a very powerful film and I appreciate what you put into it. How do you feel about receiving the Oscar nomination this year?
Raoul Peck: Well, of course, as can you imagine, you know my team and myself, we all very happy about it. It’s a great thing and, but most of it, because I’m an older film maker, so it’s not that I’m starting my career. I’ve done all the film I wanted to make and it’s more, I’m happy that we will manage and we will succeed in putting James Baldwin words on the front line again. This is what I see through this whole thing happening to us and to the film, it’s about, you know, how do we bring a real conversation in this country and how do we really face the reality and stop playing games around. And now we go to have four years it front of us where we are going again to play games, and while people are still dying when while you know the power structure is still wrecking havoc throughout the world, instead of really facing our reality, our history and Baldwin words of very hard on us, you know. Watching the film is for me an experience and a very emotional one. That’s, that’s I get from people, you know, telling me after they watch it because it can’t leave you cold. Because it’s addressing to you in a very personal, even intimate way. You need to give a response to the questions that are asked in the film. And I do hope that this whole Academy Award nomination, if it gives a lot of exposure to James Baldwin, if it’s bring Baldwin again center stage and to the right place where he had, that’s the greatest award that we can have, we can get.
Beth Accomando: Well, it just seem coming after last year’s Oscar, so why that it does have the ability with this nomination to put the focus on a film like to maybe get to you a little more attention than it might have under different circumstances?
Raoul Peck: Yes, for sure and, but at the same times we should be careful that all this film that are celebrated today, those are, you know, mostly film that were initiated and fought for but by you know Black and minority film makers. And it’s just by chance that we have such a great film this year. Those are you know stories of real hardship for some of them. And it’s not because we finally made it through this year. I worked 10 years on this film and some of my colleagues are less eventually, but nothing have structured a change Oscar, so why – it is not about what the academy does or not, or the structure of voters, you know. There is only so much you can do and those changes were, were great and necessary but the big question is how do you produce them, how do you create, how do change the power structure that decided, what film is going to be made. For me as a Black filmmaker the situation is exactly the same. Because tomorrow I will have to face a studio head and spend eventually two-third of my time with him in my meeting explaining him like who is James Baldwin or who is just some other Black historical or who is Jebwah, who is Langston Hughes, why is it important to, to do a film on those characters. So as long as you have to do that and somebody else has the key to the film you want to make and it’s usually somebody who is not your culture, who is not your race, who is not your gender and who is not, he who doesn’t have your history and who is deciding for you. And as long as the power structure itself will not change and I don’t, I don’t think it will change by itself because there is not such a thing about you know willingly giving piece of your power to anybody. So as whereas the Civil Rights Movement was important to gain certain progress in this country, it will be the same for, with Hollywood. It’s not about getting some piece of the pie every year. And by the way those are piece of pie that we have to fight for. Nothing is given for granted, is taken from granted. So, for me as far as I’m concerned and I hope most of my colleagues as well it’s about continuing that side, because we are far from, from those acceptable situations.
Beth Accomando: And do you feel that films do have the power to effect change?
Raoul Peck: No, I don’t think a film can, film can be part of change, I don’t think suddenly you know this whole group of people will watch your film and the world will be upside down. But I think film can catch a certain movement in the life of people, or the country, we know that the film of Rasta in Poland that one that came during the Polish Union Resistance was very important and were embraced by the movement and did help for the change and also to called attention to the rest of the world. And I do think film can do that. And film can, of course, change you and as an individual. Certain film changed my life and like all the films changed the life of some other individuals. I met people who said this, the film is changing their life, you know. But in order to become, you know, a collective thing, it will take more time and the film can participate in that, of course, and I hope so too. And I hope also that Baldwin books and Baldwin work will help also this younger generation to focus on what is important and what is less important that it will help us to find a way throughout our anger that is legitimate toward organizing a movement, toward finding ways to go for the long fight, not just the moment where you react. Because that’s what the Civil Rights Movement was. That’s the great lesson that Baldwin tells us it was about organizing, but on the long term and it was about taking risk. Those young men and young women at that time whether they were White or Black when they went to the South, they were risking their lives. And a lot of them were killed and killed in a very brutal way. So, when you are watching today, you must ask yourself, My God, what are we risking basically? Are we just risking our jobs? You know and that include also journalism you know the way the press is working. What is their risk beside losing their job? You lose your job, so what? People were risking their lives. So, it’s really a moment in our history where we really need those questions asked, you know. And we lost. We got lazy. We got, you know the whole environment got so, you know full of stuff that are not important. It’s like a big crown around our head and with Twitter and Facebook and all those instruments that are there to take away our attention and to stop that are totally superficial and now it’s this thing is even all the way to the top of this nation. We have a very tough for years in front of us.
Beth Accomando: And one last thing. You mentioned films have changed you. Can mention one film that you felt did change who you were?
Raoul Peck: I knew you were going to ask that.
Beth Accomando: Just curious.
Raoul Peck: You know many films sometimes it’s part inside of film that changed my life, you know somebody like Chris Marker changed my life. A film like Sans Soleil although I was already a young adult when I saw it, but on the top of my head that’s one of the film that I can say well had a great influence in my life. But books you know people like Baldwin, [indiscernible] [00:41:57], those were important book that really made who I’m today because they really changed my life.
Beth Accomando: Alright, well thank you very much for your time. And I appreciate your film.
Raoul Peck: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Beth Accomando: Thank for listening to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I Am Not Your Negro opened nationally on February 3rd, and opens in San Diego on February 10th at Landmark;s Hillcrest Cinemas. You can watch the academy awards on February 26th to see if it wins the best documentary award. In the meantime, go see this film and either discover Baldwin for the first time or reacquaint yourself with his words. And be listening this weekend from my podcast all about John Wick 2 and how it elevates American action films to a whole new level. I speak with stuntman turned director Chad Stahelski about his Kung Fu style that mixes Hong Kong shooting techniques with his own brand of American action, and how Gene Kelley and Buster Keaton were also influences. I will also be a guest once again on the Projection Booth, this time talking about making Mr. Right. So, till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.