James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show
Filmmaker Q&A

How “I Am Not Your Negro” Filmmaker Reopened James Baldwin’s “House”

January 10, 2018 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

The worldly Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck and his family fled the Duvalier dictatorship in 1961 and found asylum in the Democratic Republic of Congo, before Peck finished his schooling in the United States, France, and Germany. Currently living in both France and the U.S., Peck has been given numerous Human Rights Watch awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. He doesn’t make a ton of films (his Lumumba: Death of a Prophet is also critically acclaimed and some of his feature films, like Sometime in April, have aired on HBO) — but when he does, he makes them count. His Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro was not only one of the year’s most acclaimed films but was the second highest-grossing documentary of 2017. Centered around writer James Baldwin and his previously unpublished book (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), about race in America and the legacies of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., I Am Not Your Negro is not just an extraordinary film, but so well-timed.

It’s a film that may “make you rethink race,” as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote. “Though its principal figure, the novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, is a man who has been dead for nearly 30 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history.” Scott also adds that the film is “more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker and his subject.”

Both Peck and his producing partner Rémi Grellety talked to us about the film, the impact its had and they hope it will continue to have, and the challenges in making a compelling film out of an unpublished manuscript. (Responses are from both Peck and Grellety, except where specified.)

"I Am Not Your Negro" filmmaker Raoul Peck
“I Am Not Your Negro” filmmaker Raoul Peck

What led you to want to make this film in particular?

Rémi Grellety (producer): Within today’s context of social division, economic tension and extreme violence in America, especially against African Americans, Raoul was convinced that there was a need to analyze and understand the deeper structural explanation behind the cycles of violence and confusion (trivialized and distorted by the influence of the press, television, Hollywood, and angry partisan politics).

As Raoul was working on James Baldwin’s oeuvre, it became clear that Baldwin’s words still caught us unprepared and with the same violent truth as they did fifty years ago.

How do we break these cycles when we never touch the real issues themselves? How do we address the fundamental problems of America?  Never before has Baldwin’s voice been so needed.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making I Am Not Your Negro?

Raoul Peck: The first big challenge was to find the proper form for this film. It was important that it be a total “Baldwin experience” for the audience, using only James Baldwin’s words. This was a big challenge and responsibility. Although Baldwin never got to write Remember This House (an account of the lives and the successive assassinations of three of his friends – Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X), I knew the book was there throughout his work – in his essays, articles, private letters, etc.

Therefore, my role as a filmmaker was to bring it together as a film worthy of James Baldwin’s powerful, radical and so visionary voice. Of course, this took effort, extensive archival research; editing decisions; etc. All this was fortunately made possible with the backing of public TV (both in the US and in Europe) who trusted me and created the space and time necessary for me to complete this film.

What sort of discussions would you like PBS audiences to have after they watch your film? Or how would you encourage conversation, around the themes of race in America, given how completely relevant this is today?

Everyone sees the film through the lens of their own experience with race in America. We noticed spontaneous conversations spark after screenings between strangers, as well as [with] people who came together. Baldwin has a way of contextualizing our history that allows us to move forward with a renewed perception of the world we live in. Once you watch the film, it is hard to see otherwise.

Audiences just need to start discussions from where their personal history intersects with today’s reality and decide for themselves where we go from here.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin

For younger crowds or anyone new to Baldwin for whom this film is a jumping off point, what else (writings, films, etc) would you recommend they go to next, to learn more about Baldwin’s work and legacy? Which of his books do you think people should start with first?

One of the goals for the film was to bring Baldwin back into our lives. He was one the most important American writers of the 20th Century. There has been an increased interest in everything Baldwin (videos on the internet, newspaper articles, book sales…) since the film’s release. These are all good places to start. In regards to books specifically, we can suggest The Fire Next Time, Nobody Knows My Name and No Name in the Street.

Was there anything that surprised you as you researched and made this film, about Baldwin himself or the stories around him?

The most exciting moment came when Gloria Karefa-Smart, James Baldwin’s sister and head of the Baldwin Estate, shared with us a collection of unpublished notes untitled Remember This House. In these notes, Baldwin historically and politically linked Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to tell the story of America. Remember This House provided the extraordinary entry point into the film we were looking for.  

How did you gain the trust of her and of Baldwin’s family so you could have access to what you needed?

Raoul: James Baldwin’s oeuvre had always been a subject I wanted to explore in film. Ten years ago, when the opportunity came to tackle such a project I reached out to Gloria Karefa-Smart. It turned out that she had seen my feature film Lumumba, and that she believed that my role as a political filmmaker, my body of work to date and my deep connection to Baldwin, his social critique and his humanism make me the right person to tell this story with images. She then entrusted me the rights to all of Baldwin’s works to make this film. This was an incredible and heavy responsibility at the same time.

What was it like to work with Samuel L Jackson, and how did he prepare for the role of voicing Baldwin?

We wanted Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of James Baldwin. We were not looking for someone to mimic Baldwin’s incomparable voice but more to give it a new life, a new strength and even more, remarkable selflessness. Sam, being the accomplished stage and screen actor — with incredible range that he has — accepted the challenge. And as the true professional that he is, he delivered on all fronts.

Funny anecdote: we recorded Samuel L. Jackson in… Sofia, Bulgaria (because he was filming [The Hitman’s Bodyguard] there).

Was there anything you would’ve liked to include in the film but had to leave out?

“My role as a filmmaker was to bring it together as a film worthy of James Baldwin’s powerful, radical and so visionary voice.” Many sequences did not make the final cut. This is a subject matter on which Baldwin wrote extensively and there is a large volume of archival material (footage and photos) that exists. But in the end, I trusted the power of Baldwin’s words and together with my editor, Alexandra Strauss, we felt that the film was “there.”

Which scene in your film is your own personal favorite or most impactful for you personally?

At one point in the film, there is a montage of a speech by James Baldwin given in 1969 when he said: “I know how you watch, as you grow older and it is not a figure of speech, the corpses of your brothers and your sisters pile up around you. And not for anything that they have done, they were too young to have done anything.” And the images of young African American girls and boys assassinated those past 15 years. This is extremely powerful. It means that although we’ve made some progress, the situation hasn’t really changed in more than 45 years.

What are some of the most influential documentaries, films or filmmakers on you, on this film?

Raoul: I have been making documentaries for more than 30 years now. And from the very beginning, I’ve also put the content first and made sure to find the right form in an inventive way and no limits. One can really dare do that if you are your own master (meaning producer). When I did Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990), it was a time when nobody was even daring using the first person pronoun in their films. To do a very personal film and at the same time, a political one was a very tight line to follow. Of course, I had elders like Alexander Kluge, Chris Marker, Godard, Harun Farocki or Santiago Alvarez to look up to. But I had to emancipate myself from their influences. To find my own discourse, style, and procedures. And I profoundly think that without Lumumba there would have been no I Am Not Your Negro. It’s a whole lifetime of developments.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.