When you sit down with the director of a narrative feature, or an actors who has starred in one – often you find the interview to be limited somewhat to the project at hand; the craft, the approach, the experiences on set. But with a documentary it allows for the conversation to focus on the subject matter of the endeavour, to transcend typical film talk to explore politics, society and one’s own identity and place in the world. This is what lay the foundations for our fascinating discussion with Raoul Peck to thrive off, as the Haitian director spoke to HeyUGuys about his recently Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.
We first saw I Am Not You Negro at the Berlinale, and the power, and conviction to the words of James Baldwin ensured we were not able to see another feature that same day, such was the emotional response, and the sheer anger that this production triggered. Casting an eye on race politics in the States, covering the Civil Rights Movements, we do so from the perspective of social commentator and author Baldwin, as the unfinished manuscript he had been working on, entitled Remember This House, is narrated over footage depicting the constant battle between the African American public, and the nation they call home.
It’s hard to envisage this feature taking on any other form other than a documentary – but Peck explains before encountering this specific piece of Baldwin’s oeuvre, he had devised other plans.
“I didn’t know what the film would be, and what form it would take, whether a narrative or documentary,” he said. “But I needed the rights to everything and they gave it to me, which is unprecedented, never happened before.”
“I had to find the right entry point to tell my story and it took another four years where I was experimenting, I wrote a treatment for a narrative, I wrote something that was closer to a play, I wanted to give myself time to give myself a proper form for the content, because the content I was sure of. I had to bring Baldwin on the stage, make sure younger generations know who he was and what his writing was.”
Partly why I Am Not Your Negro flourishes in the documentary format, is because of Baldwin himself. It’s not just that his words are so brutal and yet so eloquent, it’s his delivery and presence – something only authentic archive footage could truly convey. Peck agreed this was the case, comparing the truthfulness of Baldwin to lies perpetuated by influential modern day commentators, such as the President of the United States.
“You need the credibility he has on screen and the eloquence, and his rhetorical force is unprecedented. People are not used to seeing black men talk like that, but also, any man. I’ve seen a lot of footage of other great speakers but this is rare, he had a mixture that is rare, in terms of his own experiences, his own intellect, you can feel it’s not just something he learnt in the university, because he didn’t go, he is a self-thought intellectual, and the credibility of his body language is so convincing, you know he’s not faking anything, he’s totally in it.”
“This is rare, especially today when we live in such a cynical world. You can buy a reputation today, and even if you have the wrong reputation, if you have enough money you can still win the prize, like Donald Trump, the perfect example. You could do a list of reasons why this guy could never be President, but there’s nothing on the list of why he could be, and he’s still President, and this is the world we live in. So Baldwin is like an incredible rarity.”
One of Baldwin’s most thought-provoking of anecdotes was in regards to his childhood, where he comments on the time he would watch Cowboy & Indian movies, and naturally gravitate towards the former; the so-called hero – only to then discover that he was in fact the Indian, the antagonist in his own country. Peck explains this is a feeling he too had encountered.
“That’s happened to me, it’s my own story and the story of many young boys and girls in the third world. Hollywood is a dominant cinema, and everybody grew up on it, even in India, or Africa or Haiti. Our way of life, the way we see the world came from there, and as a young boy of course you are with the hero, and Baldwin deconstructs all that, and demonstrates that no film is innocent. This is something we see today, whether it’s Harry Potter or a horror movie or a romantic comedy, they are not innocent, they are charged with ideology, a way to see the world,” he continued.
“Not just negatively, there are positive things in them, but they are not innocent, they have a message, whether it’s direct or indirect. It’s the story of all of us, it’s why you can also relate to the film, because it forces you also to revisit your own iconography, your own filmic memory. The film is a very personal experience, you’re watching a film that has roots deep into your own reality, your own history, whether you’re black or white or Chinese, no matter what, it’s why it’s extremely powerful.”
Though attracting the Hollywood heavyweight Samuel L. Jackson to this project, surprisingly, the actor’s indelible vocals are not easily recognisable. Given Baldwin’s way with words was so distinctive, as is Jackson’s delivery, there could be a fear of incompatibility – and so Peck explained that the narrator, in this instance, is like a whole new character.
“Nobody recognised Samuel L. Jackson, even his own agent did not believe when they saw the film for the first time. If he tried to mimic Baldwin it would be a failure, and I know because I experimented with voices before. It could not be a voiceover, or a commentary, it had to be a character, and when it’s a character it’s part of the film. I asked Samuel to never let there be any distance between himself and the words, everything had to come from the inside, when he says it, I have to feel that he is feeling it, that he has the emotion of these words, otherwise it’s flat, and that’s what he did. It’s a performance for him, it’s not just reading. When we were recording it was like recording music from a music sheet, you know when the note is not good, when he’s not at the right place, so he’d do it again, automatically. That’s why you never question if it’s Baldwin or not, you’re following a character, it’s a cinema convention.”
Oscar nominated this year, there’s no shame in I Am Not Your Negro missing out on the accolade, such is the strength of the competition – coming up against 13th and the eventual winner, O.J.: Made in America. But the three do all share something in common, for they are examine race in modern America. Peck feels the fact they’re all released in such close proximity is a mere coincidence, but the fact they are exist in the same period of time, is most definitely not.
“It’s a coincidence of time, all three films have a different reason to be there, mine started 10 years ago, I never knew it would be finished for this year. So that’s a coincidence, but if you look at the last 30 years, then it’s not a coincidence it’s come in this period of time, it could have been five years prior or two years later, but this is politically, and historically, a very precise moment. I’m glad you didn’t ask if something changed in Hollywood because that has nothing to do with it, nothing has changed in the power structure in Hollywood that will make these films suddenly possible.”
I Am Not Your Negro is released on April 7th, and you can read our 5* review of the film here.