“There are days, this is one of them, when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy – the death of the heart – which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.“
Those words, spoken with both weariness and defiance about the African-American experience, could have come from a news soundbite about the furious necessity of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They might have been a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, or the chokehold that resulted in Eric Garner losing his life in Staten Island, New York; they could have been pulled from a talking-head testimonial about the police shooting of Michael Brown or countless other young black males. But the statement come from the author and essayist James Baldwin, speaking to a crowd in 1963. And when you see him utter those words in Raoul Peck’s provocative, Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (opening in theaters today) juxtaposed against scenes of modern violence and race-related strife, they do not sound like a relic of the past so much as a sickening bulletin of the here and now. It’s as if Baldwin, who died 30 years ago at the age of 63, is addressing modern audiences from the grave – about how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go and how this nation has failed the black community in too many ways to count.
A Haitian filmmaker best known for his incendiary 2000 biopic Lumumba (about slain leader of the independent Congo Patrice Lumumba), the 63-year-old Peck had been turned on to Baldwin as a teenager through books like The Fire Next Time. He had long wanted to make a movie about his literary hero; the question was just what kind of film it would be. “We tried everything,” Peck says, calling on the phone while visiting Washington D.C. “We tried different forms. I worked with a playwright. I worked with a screenwriter at one point. They were not bad [ideas] – they just weren’t the monument I felt I had to do that would make Baldwin who he is and [ensure] that his legacy would stay forever. I knew that I had to find an incredible, original form that would be at the level of something that he could have done.”
“In Western Europe, somebody like Berlusconi could become the prime minister of Italy. Somebody like Sarkozy could become the president of France. Trump is almost a caricature of that [movement].”
When Peck wrote the Baldwin estate a decade ago to get permission to peruse the author’s archives, the filmmaker was still stumbling for a way into his subject. “The strange thing is that I couldn’t say to them, ‘Well, I do not want the option for one particular book. I want an option for the whole body of work,” he says, with a laugh. “And the option to the man, to the biography … everything.'” He had no idea how rare it was for the estate to provide access, but he got approval, in part because Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s sister and the estate’s executor, had seen several of Peck’s previous films and liked them. “I just told the truth,” the director explains. “I told them what he meant to me, why I wanted to do a film – but also that I did not know yet what the film would be. I said, ‘I just need the time to work on it.'”
Although Baldwin was a prolific writer, a frequent lecturer and a guest on talk shows like The Dick Cavett Show, Peck’s a-ha moment ironically arrived when he happened upon a project the author hadn’t finished. In the summer of 1979, Baldwin was preparing to write Remember This House, a memoir that sought to grapple with the murder of three slain black civil-rights leaders – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. – all of whom were the writer’s close friends. He only finished about 30 pages of the manuscript before his death in 1987, but within the text – and in Baldwin’s correspondence with his agent, Jay Acton – Peck located the spine for his film.
“You know what the writing process is: You can struggle with an idea,” he recalls. “Sometimes you have the character, sometimes you have the ending, but you still don’t have the key to the story that will make everything come together. But when I got those pages, and I saw that Baldwin [told his agent], ‘This is going to be my most important book’ … I knew I had a story there. My job was just to piece it together, to find the right combination.”
It was then that Peck found one of his crucial collaborators. Drawing from a wealth of Baldwin’s public appearances, which highlighted not only the writer’s brilliance but also his immense charisma and gravitas, the documentarian wanted to supplement those bits with narration of the Remember This House manuscript. Peck knew that casting Samuel L. Jackson to essentially “play” Baldwin in voiceover would help boost the film’s visibility, but he wisely elicited a startlingly muted and emotional performance from the oft-boisterous actor – so much so that many audiences haven’t been aware they’ve been listening to the Pulp Fiction actor recite the prose until they see his name in the end credits.
“That’s exactly the kind of conversation that a director can have with a great actor like Samuel,” Peck says about their initial discussions regarding voicing Baldwin. “He’s a stage actor as well – give a Shakespeare play to any great actor, it’s not about imitating. It’s about going deep into the text, trying to understand the character. The only direction I could give him was, ‘Just make these words your own. Don’t say anything before you feel it’s yours. Don’t put any distance between the text and you. It has to be the creation of a character. It is a confession.'”
Asked if, in his research, he determined why Baldwin abandoned Remember This House, Peck disagrees with the characterization. “I don’t think he abandoned it,” he responds at first. “He would have several projects on his table, and one would [occupy] him for two weeks or a month, and then he would let it go.” Still, the director acknowledges, “This [book] was physically hard for him. He was in pain with that subject, and you can feel that in his notes. The impact of those deaths … he saw all his friends die, one after another, in a very violent way. This is brutal, and you see how Baldwin felt every emotion. He could never work in a cold manner.”
As for connecting the unfinished manuscript – and Baldwin’s work at large – to our current political moment, it didn’t take Peck long to see echoes of the author’s statements regarding the inequality and hypocrisy of our nation’s stance on race in the powder-keg situations being captured on video and live-streamed today. The idea of incorporating #BLM protest snippets and scenes from other contemporary examples of dissent into his Baldwin portrait seemed like a no-brainer. (“I didn’t know that I would use Ferguson [footage as well],” he recently told a Vulture writer. “But when you feel that there is a historical movement – and Ferguson was historical … I knew I needed that.”)
And while Donald Trump is never mentioned by name in I Am Not Your Negro, the spirit of the bigots who helped elect him pervades the movie. “We had this feeling before November,” the filmmaker says about anticipating our commander-in-chef’s unlikely ascendance. “I live in many different places at the same time, [and] in Western Europe, a continent of great minds and great accomplishment, somebody like Berlusconi could become the prime minister of Italy. Somebody like Sarkozy could become the president of France – those were indications of where we were going. Trump is almost a caricature of that [movement] in the most powerful country. Even in my home country, the last president was a singer that had never done anything in politics.”
After the years of trial and error to find the right entry point into Baldwin’s life, Peck would be forgiven if he now felt inoculated from his documentary’s elegantly composed, bruising emotional tumult. That’s not the case, however. “Every time I watch it with a new audience, I [experience] all the same emotions again,” he admits. “It’s not a story where you can stay outside. It’s a sort of confrontation with yourself. It’s speaking to you, directly, and it’s telling you stuff that concerns you – as a human being and as a citizen. Each moment in the film, you turn the mirror to yourself … it’s impossible not to be totally involved and to question your own thoughts and prejudice. You are confronted by who you are and what you are in your society.”