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From the Archive: Raoul Peck on 'I Am Not Your Negro'

Nothing Concrete text
8 Apr 2020
15 min listen

Another dip into the archive with this episode from April 2017 where Ben Eshmade spoke to director Raoul Peck about I Am Not Your Negro, his 2016 documentary about writer and activist James Baldwin.

A documentary for me and what I personally call a creative documentary. It's another language, you should try to let the film tell the story without having to explain it. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Raoul Peck on 'I Am Not Your Negro'

Another dip into the archive with this episode from April 2017 where Ben Eshmade spoke to director Raoul Peck about I Am Not Your Negro, his 2016 documentary about writer and activist James Baldwin.


BE: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're returning again to our archive, discovering an interview with director Raoul Peck, where he talked about I Am Not Your Negro, his 2016 documentary about writer and activist James Baldwin.

RP: A documentary for me and what I personally call a creative documentary. It's another language, you should try to let the film tell the story without having to explain it. 

BE: This film is based on the works of James Baldwin and draws specific inspiration from his unfinished manuscript, Remember this House. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the documentary delivers a powerful narrative, the story of race in America, looking specifically at the reverberations of the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Extract from I Am Not Your Negro: The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people, whether or not they're going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger, liberalise the law. 

BE: Raoul Peck spoke to me in an empty tearoom in a hotel in central London. 

Why is James Baldwin an important figure to you? What do we gain by seeing the struggle for civil rights through his perspective? 

RP: Well, despite his importance as a writer, he meant a lot to me, as I discovered him as a young man. And when I started to read him, because at the time there were not so many writers or intellectuals who I felt talked about my reality and saw the world the way I start seeing it, so he was one of the few over the years. I kept reading him and he was always right on point and he helped me frame my own intellect.

BE: Why do you think the estate trusted you with his legacy with access to all his writing? 

RP: Well, this is something you should ask them. But what I suspect is my work has been very important in that respect, I guess. They've seen my film they see a lot of my work and I'm not a very, I would say, commercial filmmaker, but people do know my work and a lot of scholars use my work for teaching and I guess it's what I would call sort of integrity that probably helped me get those rights and they somehow trusted me that I could do a good job. 

BE: It's interesting you said that you maybe haven't had as much commercial success, it's very pleasant surprise then that this is the film that breaks through.

RP: Well that was a very curious happening for us, for me and my team, because this project was really a very personal, very labour of love type of project. That's why I decided to produce it myself while I was making other films. So, I took all the time I needed it took 10 years to make. And yes, it's sort of welcome irony that somehow this is the film that probably will break all records for me and my company. 

Extract from I Am Not Your Negro: The question you got to ask yourself, the white population of this country's got to ask itself. If I'm not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. 

BE: Could you talk about the importance of discovering Remember this House, which is an unpublished work, which you use to frame the film.

RP: Because I had so much access to everything it was even more important to find a really original way to start the project itself. So, I struggle a lot about different approaches. And until I found that manuscript, those 30 pages of notes, I was not satisfied with the responses I had. So, this book, this unfinished book, became a sort of mystery book through which I could tell my own story and for a filmmaker that's, of course an incredible incentive to build a film around. And it excited my curiosity, you know, to see where that book goes, what element would Baldwin include in it? And it was a sort of quest, but then it made a very organic introduction to the film I wanted to make. 

BE: And there is a sense of you kind of finishing the book through the film. He sets out the premise of it and some letters about it, but you could say the sort of study that you undertook through his writing is finishing that.

RP: Well, that was the idea. I think when Baldwin says, you know, he wanted to write his ultimate book on America, Bailey King, the assassination of District friends. I understood what he meant by that. And having read all Baldwin, my question was, I couldn't imagine what else he could have done than what he had already done? So, for me, the idea was in fact, that he wrote the book, it's just, he didn't have the time to put it together. So, my job was to go around and throughout his work, whether published or unpublished to understand what that book was to be and to put it together.

Extract from I Am Not Your Negro: What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.

BE: It's a sort of reverse documentary because in a normal documentary, you would have lots of talking heads. But in this you have him as the Narrator, the guide through the thing and history itself as the sort of talking heads as the material around him.

RP: Well, you know, the story with talking heads is it's something that came throughout the development of the documentary form, but it is not the original form of documentary. Documentary is basically to go somewhere and let the people forget about you and observe them and try to be totally invisible. And talking heads was always very didactic tool to explain a film and you can see today networks like Netflix or HBO, they love that because it's easier for the audience. It makes everything quite understandable. But also, quite didactic. In fact, you're not making films, you're making a sort of better news footage and documentary for me and what I personally call creative documentary, it's another language. You should try to let the film tell the story without having to explain it. And I already had those incredible words of Baldwin. So why have anybody trying to interpret them, to be a go between the audience and those words? The challenge for me was to find the right approach, or right form, the right images to tell the story with these words, totally on the front line, on the front row. There is this sort of immediacy, in the confrontation or in the exchange.

BE: He's an incredible character. I mean, we also which I think is a great bonus, we get to see him, we see him in debates. We see him on talk shows winning over the nation. He comes across as amazingly charismatic.

RP: Yes. And he was, you know, one should not forget that Baldwin was a young preacher at the age of 14. And he left the church at 17 that left a profound mark on him. And at very young age he had read everything, he used to joke about it, you know, that he read everything in his local library and had to go down to Manhattan to find new books. But he was not in fact making a joke, he really had read everything. The addition of his incredible education, his self-taught education, the fact that he had learned very early on the reality of life, the struggle for your soul and the soul of others, had framed him and made him the man he became. And of course, his incredible eloquence, his master of rhetoric and philosophy and argument is rare.

Extract from I Am Not Your Negro: You talk about making it as a writer by yourself, you have to be able then to turn off all the antennae with which you live, because once you turn your back on this society you may die. You may die. And it's very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you.

BE: This is a fantastic film to watch, one that you can revisit, mainly because it's got many layers to it. I mean that there are kind of sub films within it. One thing I wanted to mention was, which I found I really engaged with was a sort of sub strand, which was a sort of depiction of race in Hollywood films, which kind of runs throughout the film.

RP: Well, that's the thing the film has so many different layers, because I try to tell the story through all these layers, you know, not only through the image, but there are so many different types of image and these types tell the story in its own different way. The music tells the story, of course the words tell the story, but every sound in the film was studied for that, we basically made the film as we would do a narrative. So, make sure that we are telling a story. That means a story that will stand the test of time that will be as dramatic, as funny, as ironic 20 or 30 years from now. So that's the richness of all those layers. The aspect of Hollywood, of course, takes a lot of room because Baldwin shows the role of those images in our life, our personal iconography. I was raised watching those Hollywood movies, it's the dominant cinema throughout the world. Whether you grew up in the third world or in Africa or in Haiti, but also in Europe. Everybody knows those films; everybody has seen John Wayne once in their lifetime. And at the same time, Baldwin shows us what these films were transporting, they were transporting ideology, history, politics, a way of living. And it was a very important agent of globalisation, whether we like it or not. And Baldwin is deconstructing that image, to show us that even the most natural or ridiculous love story also has a political message in it. The lack of empathy, for example, take a film like Pyjama Game, which is a wonderful musical, but is basically totally white and the film is supposed to tell the story of a Union in the United States. Also, it shows how the reality has been totally misused to transfer a message, and Baldwin has been very good in showing that.

BE: You don't hold back from shocking images or shocking moments in the film, but they weren't gratuitous. They're put in at the right moment for the right reasons and maybe even more shocking because of his words around them.

RP: Well, that's the thing, the words are already so shocking, it's not because they are told in very incredible language, a very humanistic language, even poetic at times, that is not as shocking when you really listen to what Baldwin is saying. When he says if you don't realise that this is the reality you're living in, you're basically a criminal. This is strong, when he talks about the cruelty of the huge white majority, who has no empathy for the other, this is hard to hear. And he speaks from the gut. In terms of the images I use and the contrast that I use in editing them, that's the least I could do. I couldn't just sugar-coat what Baldwin is actually saying, and the way he's saying it, so I had to find the appropriate form at least to try the same radicality that Baldwin has, in his words.

Extract from I Am Not Your Negro: I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.

BE: It's an incredible, powerful viewing experience that very much deserves its praise and Award nominations and wins. And most importantly, it introduced me and I'm sure others to Baldwin's work and character he was rightly not someone to try and argue with. It also set the scene for Barry Jenkins' sumptuous love story based on Baldwin's writing If Beale Street Could Talk, which was released a few years later, more of that on a future podcast. 

I'm Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to nothing concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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