Raoul Peck spent a decade securing the rights to James Baldwin’s published and unpublished writing for “I Am Not Your Negro,” his Oscar-nominated documentary about the writer. The movie opened on February 3 and became an immediate sensation, pulling in $709,5000 from 43 theaters across the country.
Peck combines archival interviews, photographs, Samuel L. Jackson’s voiceovers, and even Kendrick Lamar to present an image of black life in America across multiple decades, underscoring the assemblage with Baldwin’s own thoughts.
“I had to invent the process of working on this film,” Peck said in an interview, “which means that I had to go step by step in a way that I wouldn’t get lost in all of it.”
“I Am Not Your Negro” imagines a full life for a work that Baldwin left unfinished —a book about the legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. — examining when and how America continues to wrestle with all of his observations, which feel as prescient now as when the writer first delivered them. From the first time he got his hands on Baldwin’s book of film essays, Peck said, he’s been plotting out this work in his head, if only subconsciously. “Most of the time I explain that the film took probably 10 years because that’s when I got the rights, but I should count the 30 years prior, because Baldwin has been part of my life all along,” he explained. “It’s not that I ‘went back to Baldwin.’ It’s that I had Baldwin all along. He’s always been some part of me.” In the following conversation, he elaborated on his relationship to the author’s work.
What was the first essay of Baldwin’s that you read?
I think it was “The Fire Next Time.” I can’t know exactly because as soon as I read the first one I tried to read everything I could get my hands on. I think probably it was a gift, and that book is a gift I’ve given to many others since.
At the time, I was really looking for anything that could help me understand where I am, where I was, what kind of stories I was seeing. I was a very big reader, and I would try to see where my place was in these stories. I traveled very early on in my life, so I knew that something was not right: the idea that I had of France or the idea I had of Africa was flawed and absurd. So the responses I searched for in literature were not that obvious. Whether it was French or American literature, I was absent.
How did you decide which texts of his to include in the movie?
Working on this film was like building from the ground up. Once I had the letter, once I had the storyline about the three friends and their assassinations, I had to slowly try to incorporate the bottom line of that: their link, and Baldwin’s life at the time. Because the movie is also about the construction of the black image — of the negro, as he says — I knew that his film criticism would be very important. That was the book “The Devil Finds Work.”
Over the years, has your relationship to Baldwin’s work changed?
No, I don’t think so. Perhaps because when I started reading him so early, he had a tremendous influence on the way I see the world, myself, and my place in the world. In fact, I feel like I’m also a product of Baldwin. I think I understood him better and better, up to now, today, when I can see what his life was during different parts in his work: his life in Paris, in Turkey, etc. All the way up to the Civil Rights Movement, where he started to lose his place as an icon.
The radical movement took over, and he became more of an elder than an actor. Before his death, he was still trying to teach and still trying to be involved, but it wasn’t the same James Baldwin who was all over the press and invited everywhere. It’s only in the last five years that he’s gotten much more attention. It’s incredible to have followed this life throughout his ups and downs. The words, though, are still as impactful and true and current.”
Why Samuel L. Jackson for the voiceovers?
There were many criteria that I had. I needed a famous person, but also a great actor. I needed someone who had some street credibility. Samuel was one of three or four names that I had chosen. He’s the first one I wanted to ask, and he saw a cut of the film and said yes.
I was not looking for a narrator or voiceover. The voice needed to be acted — I needed someone to be the voice, to incorporate those words from the inside, and make them his own. It was much more about acting than reading.
Did you have any conversations with him about the essays or Baldwin’s work?
No. My concern was that the text in the film is long enough, he had enough to read through with the existing texts. Baldwin’s writing was clear, it was direct and poetic. It was beautiful, precise. Everything is in it already. It’s about how you let those words penetrate your mind, your soul, your art. I just asked him to work with those words and give them back in a way that felt real and emotional.
Donald Trump appears once in the documentary very briefly, in a montage of mostly white politicians and public figures apologizing on camera. How did you decide to include him?
We were being fundamental, not trying to present news. The idea of the sequence was probably even before he wanted to become president. We did a very large search of politicians apologizing — something that Americans are very used to — but globally, it’s a pretty peculiar thing to see. [Politicians here] can do the worst things and then cry before the cameras and all is forgotten. Baldwin wrote and spoke about that.
It wasn’t difficult to find footage of those kinds of public apologies. I made selections based on the way they were saying [sorry] or who was saying it: both Clintons, Reagan, Nixon, Bush, and Trump were obviously the more well known. But I could have gone on if I included evangelists and actors, etc. The end selection came very genuinely. The end selections were all somehow linked to the political and social arena, and also the reality show of pop culture. I think we were confronted with our choice when Donald Trump really got into the campaign.
One of the most striking scenes comes near the end, where Baldwin’s words are paired with these really intimate images of black people in present day.
At some point in the editing, I knew I would need real people from today and somehow close the circle. The film goes back and forth in history — the present is the past, the past is the present — and I wanted to end with the present day. I also wanted real faces, and to present them in a genuine way. I didn’t want to book actors or hold a casting. On Facebook, we made several attempts to find volunteers. We asked for Baldwin fans, and had 100-150 responses. We invited them and I tried to speak with them to figure out who they were. All of them came from totally different backgrounds. Almost nobody had something in common. It was a mixture, and because of that, the sequence became even more symbolic than I thought.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the film about James Baldwin and his work?
I hope people go back and read Baldwin. If this film continues to put Baldwin at center stage, that’s all I can ask. Baldwin can always be read in schools and universities more and more. That’s what I ultimately hope will happen.
But this film gives you back whatever you put in. It’s not something you can just consume. It’s a film that raises questions in a very intimate way. The reaction I’ve been watching since the beginning is that people feel concerned in a very personal way. After seeing this film, nobody can be innocent. It’s so clearly stated and explained. Like Baldwin says, if you continue to ignore what the film is saying to you, it’s basically criminal. It’s not so much about what I want people to get out of it. I want them to experience the film and Baldwin’s own words.