At the age of 16, director Raoul Peck began a pattern of reading and rereading the writing of the great American novelist and essayist James Baldwin in search of moral guidance and spiritual revelation. For Peck, who has described his immersion in the author as “almost like a Bible type of relationship,” these experiences of deep reading met needs for wisdom and a sense of purpose that previous generations satisfied through religion. And that’s part of why Peck’s new Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro — which just picked up an Oscar nom for Best Documentary, is featured at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and opens nationwide on February 3 — carries such impact right now. To the great question out of the book of Job that so many are asking right now — “Where shall wisdom be found?” — I Am Not Your Negro offers a resounding and historically rich answer.
In an unusual business arrangement indicative of extraordinary trust in Peck’s understanding of the material, Baldwin’s sister and literary executor Gloria Karefa-Smart gave the filmmaker unrestricted access to the late writer’s entire oeuvre and archive. Faced with such a wealth of material, Peck’s unorthodox choice was to “re-create” on film Remember This House, a projected triptych of civil-rights-era biographies — of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X — that Baldwin never finished. That decision has given us this marvelous film; it is a bracing and authoritative contemporary cinematic statement on race in America that makes the three exemplary black lives that Baldwin intended to tell as much a part of the documentary’s story as the clarion call of Baldwin’s own voice, here heard in period recordings and as freshly read by Samuel L. Jackson.
Peck makes both documentaries and feature films, and his expressive approach to music and cinematography gives I Am Not Your Negro a distinctive look and feel that’s more hip-hop than agitprop. The mix of archival and recent footage flows in surprising ways, altering one’s sense of time and place through unexpected reversals from color to black-and-white.
In a recent email exchange, Peck answered some of my questions about what is sure to be one of the most talked-about and highly praised films of the season and the festival.
The film combines Baldwin’s quest with your emotional syntax as a director. Could you say more about that? I could not have been able to make a similar film with any other author. I could with Baldwin because not only did he have a major role in my upbringing, but he literally helped shape my brain. So that when in need, I could even “second guess” and “feel” what he would have used or done while writing his book.
I felt totally immersed in James Baldwin’s world, rhythm, emotion, pain, conflict, anger. This sort of intimacy is rare. And it was further cemented by my growing up in this same American mythology, although I confronted it much later than he did. But I perfectly felt what he meant every step of the way.
What makes the projected work Remember This House so special? Why try to re-create it? This was an unprecedented project from the start. To have such unlimited access with no strings attached to the full body of work of an author is something unheard of and impossible in our film industry.
It’s ironic, even, that it would be an unfinished collection of notes titled Remember This House that would provide me with the exceptional entry point into the film that I was looking for. The very idea of re-creating a book that was never written has the quality of a mystery novel for a filmmaker like me. And, historically and politically linking these major figures — Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X — like Baldwin did, is an incredible, dramatic move. Telling the story of America through these lives? Genial.
The decision to make changes to the images — shifting black-and-white (B&W) images to color and taking current images and using them in B&W — how does that reflect the subjective “remixing” aesthetic of the film? From the start, I knew that this film would be about images. Fabricated images, contradictory images, painful images, propaganda images, images of the past, images of the present, in all shapes, forms and qualities. The same could actually be said for the music. It’s like the story of America was being told through text, images, sounds, and music. So I had to also find the proper form (and aesthetic) that would match this approach in a non-didactic manner. Playing with the colors and B&W images became then a way to meld past and present and press the fact that not much (besides the technology) had changed and that there was a straight link between Selma and Ferguson.