Raoul Peck's new historical documentary coming soon.
At the beginning of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, TV host Dick Cavett asks James Baldwin a question many well-meaning white folks are still curious about today: Why aren’t African-Americans more optimistic?
“There arc Negro mayors, there are Negroes in all of sports, [and] there are Negroes in politics,” Cavett says, laying out the argument that incremental progress should be enough to appease Black Americans. “Is it at once getting much better and still hopeless?” he wonders.
Unfazed, Baldwin gives a wry smile before answering. “I don’t think there’s much hope for it as long as people arc using this peculiar language. It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here… but the real question is, what’s going to happen to this country?”
Despite the conversation being nearly a half-century old, Baldwin’s question remains unanswered. And after bidding adieu to the country’s first Black president in addition to the inauguration of Donald Trump, Baldwin’s warning looms even larger.
As we struggle to make sense of these times. Peck argues Baldwin’s scorching prose is not only more relevant than ever, but it also provides much-needed clarity.
“I’m not very religious, but it’s like having a Bible,” the Haitian filmmaker says about Baldwin’s writings.
“When you feel low, when you feel sad, when you feel you don’t understand a problem or the complexity of the world, you go back to Baldwin,” Peck says. “You don’t even have to read the whole essay. Just read a few paragraphs, a few chapters, and it will recenter you again.”
In I Am Not Your Negro, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, Peck uses a 1979 letter Baldwin wrote to his literary agent to chronicle the story of race, America and one of the most influential minds of our time.
After searching for the perfect entry point into the writer’s life. Peck knew he’d struck gold when Baldwin’s younger sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, gave him a jumbled sheaf of papers that included an outline for a powerful personal account of the assassinations of three of Baldwin’s friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Though he would never finish the book— Baldwin completed only 30 pages of the manuscript—Peck’s film weaves together archival footage, photographs and, of course, the author’s own words to create “the perfect Baldwin book.”
“The incomplete book is just the device I found, after many, many searches. The fundamental decision was, how do I say something that can be powerful and audible and impactful and precise, as James Baldwin did?” Peck says. “This book was not written, but I say, no, he wrote it; my job is just to find it, throughout his work.”
Like in his previous films, Sometimes in April, about the Rwandan genocide, and Lumumba, a feature about slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Peck isn’t interested in merely entertaining audiences, but rather using his art as a “political instrument” to force a conversation—one that seems long overdue in America because of our refusal to directly confront our long and painful history of racism and systematic oppression.
“When do we start dealing with it, face to face? That’s what the film asks,” Peck says. “We ask the question to you, personally. Where are you in that story? Are you among the privileged, among those who don’t want to see? If you don’t want to know, you are a criminal, because this is what America is, Black and White.”
With intensity in his voice, the director adds, “Your life, the life of your children and your grandchildren, you are deciding it right now. You can close your eyes, but you can’t say you arc innocent anymore.” That’s what Baldwin says.
I am Not Your Negro opens in theatres nationwide Feb 3.