When Raoul Peck was eight, his family fled Haiti for the Congo to escape the tyranny of then-dictator François Duvalier.
This was a place he thought he already knew well from the movies. Weaned on the black-and-white Tarzan adventures of the ’30s and ’40s, starring the U.S. Olympian Johnny Weissmuller swinging from vines, Peck envisioned Africa with verdant landscapes and Nordic gods swooping in to save the day. He would quickly come to realize that was not the case.
“I remember my first step from this airplane at the airport and only seeing black people and I said, ‘Whoa, something is wrong here,’” recalls Peck. “It’s the first time I really understood what an image is—that cinema has given you an image of the rest of the world and it’s not what it’s like.”
Peck has been grappling with this disparity his entire life. The 63-year-old director is fond of saying that, over a 30-year-plus career in filmmaking, none of the images he’s put on screen are actually his. Instead, per the title of his 2012 book Stolen Images, the feeling of being a perpetual outsider because of his race has led Peck to burrow inside movies, television shows and historical footage to understand the power of images, in order to use them to reflect his own non-white reality.
“I don’t have a hundred years of film history, because I was excluded from it,” says Peck. “So I have to create mine through the images of the others. All my work is about how to break that consensus about images, and how to penetrate them.”
Given that it concerns America’s enduring racial divide, you’re likely familiar with many of the events that are covered in Peck’s latest feature, I Am Not Your Negro, but still, the film is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Based on unpublished writing by the late, great African-American scholar, activist and social critic James Baldwin, the electrifying cinematic experience has the author recounting his alienation from the country he was born in, due simply to the color of his skin. It introduces him when he’s living in Paris at 55 and proposing a book to his literary agent that will prompt his return to the States for a reckoning.
Baldwin would only get 30 pages into the manuscript titled “Remember This House” before abandoning it, a daunting yet bold undertaking built around the cultural conditioning of Americans that has actively diminished, if not denied, the experience of black Americans. It attempts to reframe American history around the lives and premature deaths of Baldwin’s three close friends and brothers-in-arms in the civil rights movement—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers—whose sin of breaking through to the masses challenged the historical narrative fashioned by the white majority.
The alacrity of Baldwin’s thoughts requires Peck to race from clip to clip, to locate precisely the right images to accompany what he says. Even so, the sparks of the author’s ideas about two Americas—one that could be seen on big screens everywhere and the one that existed just outside the theater—turn into flames, presenting a view of the racial divide that’s so rarely accessed across cultural lines. Baldwin sounds prophetic in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic deaths of young African-American men such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Walter Scott, and the sad reality sets in that nothing has changed in the decades since his passing in 1987. Yet the writer’s way of personalizing history so that it doesn’t feel distant or abstract is what makes his work timeless.
Negro is made even more intimate by Peck’s willingness to insert his own history as readily as Baldwin does. Tarzan appears, alongside many other films namechecked by Baldwin to deconstruct their echoes throughout American culture. And, undoubtedly, the contemporary scenes used to visualize the places Baldwin had been are touched by Peck’s own experience—the lonely images of floating through Times Square in the dead of the night perhaps emanating from the director’s time as a cab driver in New York City. Often referring to Baldwin as “a guide” to understanding the world, Peck’s perspective has been inextricably linked to the author ever since he sneaked into his father’s library at 10 to read his writing.
“What you see is not the whole story,” says Peck. “Baldwin helped me understand that and warned me very early on in my life. That’s what I owe him—questioning of the obvious, because the obvious is never the truth.”
Nothing was obvious when Peck first began thinking about what would ultimately become Negro. The filmmaker flirted with a more traditional dramatic retelling of Baldwin’s story, or perhaps a hybrid with documentary elements, which he would spend a year developing with Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. They eventually parted ways before Peck found a patient partner in Arte, the Franco-German media company (with whom he had worked before) which could provide him with the time necessary to figure out a way forward.
“I always choose stuff that’s impossible,” laughs Peck, who coincidentally just put the finishing touches on Young Karl Marx, a narrative biopic which took the same 10 years to make that Negro did. “It took time for the Baldwin text to emerge. How do you find the right storyline and how do you create a multilayered story? That takes time. There is no magic in it. It is really just ‘sit down and work.’”
It was four years before Peck would even have an outline for the film, but he did get a lucky break in terms of timing. The filmmaker had a fan in Baldwin’s sister Gloria Baldwin Karefa-Smart, who admired Peck’s documentary on Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo. Besides giving him her father’s life rights, which the estate had denied so many others, Karefa-Smart had also been putting together Baldwin’s papers to donate to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library. When she came across the manuscript for “Remember This House” and Baldwin’s correspondence regarding it, she set them aside for Peck to take a look at.
“[Gloria] knew that I was looking for ways to approach the material,” says Peck. “She gave me this pile of letters and notes and said, “‘OK, Raoul, you will know what to do with it.’”
Indeed, Peck had a foundation to support the structure that Baldwin had set up. Yet it was Baldwin’s references to specific films that finally lay the groundwork for a visual language. On sets of other films that Peck made over the decade spent on Negro, he combed through piles of films, sent to him by his research team, after the shooting day was over, in search of the perfect scenes to reflect off of Baldwin’s words. He also brought in a friend from Paris to record a dramatic reading of three hours’ worth of Baldwin’s text, following a technique he had used on previous films, but was unsure would work here.
“You have to find a tension between the words and the images, but the tension cannot be too strong, or it takes too much attention from the content of the words,” says Peck. “This was one of the rare films where you had to start on the editing table. You couldn’t start theoretically. We had to go step by step, and invent the next step, because it was only by editing that we would see how to go further.”
Over time, Peck started to find revealing juxtapositions, eventually folding in archival footage from such landmark events as the 1957 integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Never has the lily-white Gary Cooper-Audrey Hepburn romance Love in the Afternoon looked so nefarious as when paired next to the video of the Rodney King beating, a trembling violin from the former transformed into a primal scream over the latter, the real world harshly disputing the escapism Hollywood has long sold.
Peck refreshes these images in other ways, choosing to colorize the majority of civil rights movement footage to ensure audiences see them freed of the monochrome trappings of the past. He also invoked a method of drawing attention to certain points of still photos with camera zooms and pans, a technique he’s worked to perfect since his first student films. (In the old days, Peck kept notebooks with diagrams where he calculated the exact measurements in speed and distance to pull off such camera moves. His crew, thankfully, do that work on a computer today.)
“The photo tells so many stories,” Peck says, citing the continuing inspiration of Chris Marker’s “La Jetée.” “It’s your job to extract all those things from that photo.”
What about sound? Thanks to the connections of composer Alexei Aigui, who previously scored his 2009 drama Moloch Tropical, Peck was able to get a full orchestra at an affordable rate to match Baldwin’s dignified air with a proud, insistent classical score recorded at Russia’s Mosfilm Studio.
He also needed to replace the narration that had been recorded to get the film off the ground to make it fly. Through the entertainment lawyer Nina L. Shaw (who had also connected him with the Baldwin estate initially), Peck was able to get the film to Samuel L. Jackson, who quickly agreed to lend his voice. Rather than ask Jackson to fulfill the traditional role of a narrator as a voice of authority, Peck asked the actor instead to approach the vocal work as he would any other dramatic performance. The result is a soulful, world-weary delivery of Baldwin’s words.
“We had to put him in a situation where he was at ease, as if he was talking to his best friend,” says Peck. “I didn’t give him a lot of direction. He’s a great actor—I told him, ‘Just be the words, be Baldwin, be this character, because that’s the only way it can work.’”
Toward the end of the process, Peck dispatched the filmmakers Henry Adebonojo and brothers Bill and Turner Ross to shoot contemporary footage from New York and the deep South, giving the film a geographical breadth to complement its historical sweep. Many of these images, right down to the drops of rain that drip down the side of a window, were pulled directly from Peck’s own memory.
Peck discovered an unexpected instance of hope for the future. He had convened a shoot for the film’s beautiful closing salvo, a collection of young African-American men and women who represent an opportunity to break history’s vicious cycle. After placing a notice on Facebook for participants, the production received over 100 responses from potential volunteers and eventually brought many of them to the film. When they arrived on set, Peck spent time talking to them and found that very few participants shared the exact same ethnic heritage. This, to Peck, was physical proof of Baldwin’s insistence that there is no such thing as a monolithic “black experience”—a long-propagated and dehumanizing form of reductionism.
“[Their forebears had come] from all over the world—they ranged from Native American to Chinese to Indian,” Peck says enthusiastically. “It was a reflection of the whole film that all these faces are so different, and it was a great day because something theoretical becomes true. I knew it was a perfect ending.”
The same could be said for what has happened for Negro after Peck’s decade-long journey with it. When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Peck had to urge audiences to sit down after a prolonged standing ovation, presaging its win of the festival’s prestigious Audience Award. Soon after, the film stoked conversations about racial equality when the organizers of Blackout for Human Rights held advance screenings across the country (in a double feature with Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th) as part of its third annual Blackout Black Friday event in November. It is currently on a shortlist of documentaries vying for an Academy Award. Yet Peck, who appears to have achieved his primary goal of bringing Baldwin back into the limelight—the film’s release from Magnolia Pictures will bring along with it the long-awaited publication of “Remember This House” from Vintage Books—is looking forward for audiences to make the film their own, as he did with Baldwin’s words.
“The biggest award I could get is that the film moves people and confronts them personally and intimately,” said Peck. “I didn’t leave anything unturned. There was nothing more I could’ve done. I take responsibility for every single second of this film.” MM
A History of Distortion
Five films featured in I Am Not Your Negro as illustrations of Hollywood’s damaging take on people of color
Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 blockbuster features African tribes hauling the willowy white Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) up to be sacrificed to a monster gorilla. Though the film finds King Kong to be a sympathetic character, his journey from the Congo to America in chains undeniably, if unintentionally, recalls the slave trade and, with the snatching of Darrow, speaks to misguided fears of black male sexuality.
John Ford’s 1939 Western didn’t involve African-Americans, but it nonetheless spoke deeply to Baldwin. John Wayne’s gunslinging Ringo Kid picked off Apaches one by one, and Baldwin believed the villainous, one-note portrayal of Native-Americans was interchangeable with how African-Americans were usually depicted. Peck says of his own experience: “When I was 11 or 12 and watching films with friends, when there was a black character, which was rare, we would count how long it would take until he died. You were allowed to kill the black character, as you were allowed to kill the Native American.”
Imitation of Life
Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel—about a white single mother who comes to care for her black live-in housekeeper’s mixed-race daughter, Peola, as her own—was adapted to film twice, yet drew controversy each time. John M. Stahl’s 1934 version, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, was nominated for three Oscars, but faced opposition from Production Code censors who were concerned with promoting miscegenation, then a crime (it was believed that the light-skinned Peola’s racial identity wouldn’t be clear enough to audiences). Douglas Sirk’s 1958 version caused the civil rights activist Almena Davis-Lomax to organize picketing of the film, saying it was a “libel on the negro race,” as it reinforced stereotypes. Still, it was Universal Pictures’ biggest box-office hit at the time.
The Defiant Ones
Although Tony Curtis’ John Jackson and Sidney Poitier’s Noah Cullen were famously shackled together as prisoners on the lam, working together to survive in this 1958 thriller from Stanley Kramer, Baldwin was deeply critical of the film and brought attention to the disconnect between audiences watching it. In one of his most cutting insights during Negro, he compares the reaction of “white liberal people downtown” who cheered the film’s ending (in which Cullen refused to abandon Jackson after all they had been through) as a show of unity, to black audiences in Harlem who “wanted [Cullen] to get back on the train” as a sign of agency. For his part, Kramer later said Baldwin was right in his criticism, calling the film “an inadequate attempt by a white filmmaker to deal with a contemporary problem.”
Peck’s inclusion of a clip from Horace Ové’s drama represents far more than it initially appears to. The Trindidad-born British filmmaker and photographer had long been a disciple of Baldwin’s, creating Baldwin’s Nigger, a 1969 film of a conversation Baldwin and the comedian Dick Gregory had about social justice in London. Hence, Pressure, made in 1976, is one of the few films included in Negro to be directly influenced by the author’s ideas. In turn, the film, set in West London, where immigrants of Caribbean descent struggle to assimilate, demonstrated how media coverage could mislead the public about activist efforts. Says Peck, “I’ve known Ové’s film for my whole life, and we were friends, so that was a homage.” MM
I Am Not Your Negro opens in theaters February 3, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios.