Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro uses the words of James Baldwin—most memorably from his book-length essay on American cinema, The Devil Finds Work, as well as an unfinished manuscript on the deaths of Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King—to support a montage of images of Baldwin, past and present America, and racist scenes from Hollywood films. Baldwin’s words tend to dominate the film, especially as read simply but beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, in a plain-spoken voiceover that's among the best work he’s done. I Am Not Your Negro demonstrates the eternal relevance of Baldwin’s essays and fiction, in an era where America seems to be backsliding away from progress on racism.

Raoul Peck © LYDIE/SIPA, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Did the film start with images or Baldwin’s words?

It started with Baldwin, because he played a major role in my life. He’s not an author you read once and forget about. He was a sort of far-away mentor to me, like many other people of my generation. At the time, there were not that many authors from whom you could get a reflection of yourself and your place in the world. I read Faulkner, I read everything in American and French literature, but I never found my reality as a black man in those books. They were the fourth or fifth character. It’s like I said in the movie. You’re looking for the first black man, and you know he’s going to get killed by the twentieth minute. He never goes through the whole story. Over the years, that time got longer, and you could even have a sidekick. So in a world like this, someone like Baldwin is just bringing you a part of your history. He helped me structure my thoughts. I would always come back to his books. You could read him and then, ten years later, read him again. He wrote incredible essays on all sorts of topics. He even wrote about Jerusalem. One magazine asked him to travel there and write about it. He was a star at the time. All the big magazines asked him 'Go to Africa, go to Europe, visit Ingmar Bergman and write something.' He was a chronicler of his time. He could help you understand some aspects of a complex situation.

How old were you when you discovered Baldwin?

Sixteen or seventeen. I’m pretty sure the first book was The Fire Next Time. It was small and easy to read, but in a few pages, it gave you a story and position. It explained where you were in your life, whatever contradiction you were experiencing.

Do you find it ironic that it took a Haitian filmmaker, working largely with European financing, to make a film whose basic subject is American racism?

Ironic, yes, but my whole life is ironic. I’m the president of the French National Film School, and I’m Haitian! What I see is that I was privileged to have left my country very early; I went to the Congo when I was eight. I was able to discover another continent. I discovered how to have a distance to where I came from. When you speak an additional language, it’s easier to learn more languages. The more you travel, the more you start to experience different people and ways of thinking, and the more you learn about yourself. That’s what Baldwin did. He understood America by leaving America. When your head is in the hole, it’s difficult to have enough distance to analyze what you’re going through. The pressure was impossible for him. Otherwise, he would have died. And he’s not exaggerating. You can die in different manners, because you kill yourself or come upon an accident and someone shoots at you. But you can also die out of anger, because you bump into a racist situation and react violently. Let’s say a cop pushes you, and instead of keeping silent and calm, you lunge at him. You’ll get killed. Those are real situations. When he left New York for Paris, this was an incredible discovery. A big part of the pressure left. Not that there’s no racism in France, but that’s another conversation. He was able to concentrate on his typewriter. He could find the time to think, and from a distance, he could have a sharper analysis of his own country. That was my privilege too. I grew up in the U.S., going to public school in Brooklyn, but I also went to school in France and the Congo. Going back and forth gave me a platform where I could see the bigger picture, not just a local point of view.

I Am Not Your Negro

You’ve worked all over the world. Do you prefer not being tied to any specific culture?

If the tying is a way to put you in a box, I don’t want it. Yes, I have a Haitian passport, but I’m also a resident of the U.S. I have a complex story. My brothers are American. I have a half-brother who went to Vietnam. My father spent twenty-five years in Africa. I studied in Germany. What does that make me? I know this country better than the average American. I’ve read more American authors than the average American, more German authors than the average German, more French authors than the average Frenchman. I don’t need a definition. Baldwin didn’t want to be defined either. Is he a gay man? Is he a black man? Is he a novelist? Is he a journalist? A playwright? A screenwriter? He was all of the above. I don’t want that box. I’m still learning and developing myself, so you can’t define me by what I am now. Why would you need to define me? Sometimes people say, 'You are an activist.' It doesn’t mean anything, or it’s a cliché. I call myself a citizen. I am interested in matters of the city. That’s not a problem, the problem is you who are not interested and don’t care. Some people get up to vote and that’s it. They go back to work and watch TV. That’s not what democracy is. It’s being involved in your community, and your church, if you’re religious. When people call me an activist, it’s a cheap way of getting away with their own inaction. That’s why I refuse their names. I’m just interested in what’s going on around me. I can’t live here without knowing who’s going to be my president and why, because he has power over my fate and the fate of my children. I have to be interested in that.

You’ve since made a film in Germany, The Young Marx. Could you talk about that?

I came from  a time when it was taboo to speak about Karl Marx, but I studied economics in Germany, and Karl Marx was part of the curriculum. He was a great economist and philosopher. So you can’t just write him off because of the Cold War. Russia took Karl Marx for its own purposes but he probably would have been the first to be killed in the Russian Revolution. The young Karl Marx was not dogmatic. He was friends with Friedrich Engels, whose father owned multiple factories both in Germany and Manchester. They were incredible young men who were geniuses, wrote about economics, and fought against injustice. At that time in Europe, there was the biggest famine and emigration of people, particularly from Ireland. Those two men and Jenny Marx, Karl’s wife, just started to find solutions to the repression and injustice and all the things that Europe was subjected to. I took ten years to make it. I do complicated projects. I Am Not Your Negro also took ten years. I made other films during that time, I didn’t just focus on those two films.

At what point did Samuel L. Jackson get involved in I Am Not Your Negro?

Towards the last two months of editing. I knew it was time to make a choice. I used another voice for the editing process, but I knew it would help if we had a celebrity. Also, I knew I needed a great actor. The third criterion was someone with street credibility. When I heard Samuel L. Jackson speak about himself, he really had his feet on the ground. He was top on the list of three American actors I wanted to approach. He said yes, very early on, and we started working on the film.

Throughout the film, Baldwin seems to be trying to find reasons to remain optimistic about life as a black man in the U.S., and having a hard time doing so. We’re in a period where, both in the U.S. and Western Europe, things seem to be going backwards as far as the treatment of minorities. Do you see much hope for the end of racism?

You heard Obama himself say, 'We still have a lot of work to do.' It was not the same Obama a few months ago who still tried to find a note of hope. I found he was more pessimistic on that subject. But as far as I’m concerned, I tend not to use the word 'hope' or the adjective 'optimistic' because it’s not about that for me. I can’t act or not act because I’m optimistic or pessimistic; I just have to act. Hope is something that can eventually help or block you. If you have no hope, do you just sit down and die? For me, there is a situation, we analyze it, and do whatever is in our power to change it. We can change it, it’s not going to change on its own. We need to acknowledge a common history. There are not two histories lived through different moments by different people. There is not a story of Irish people coming here and 400 years of slavery and the Native American genocide. It’s the same story. We need to put it together, and then we can have a chance to build a future together. But there cannot be a dream if it’s based on a lie. Those are basic things, but as long as we don’t work together with everyone doing their share and pitching in, we can’t benefit from  it. I try not to deal with those kind of adjectives.

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