Raoul Peck knows that you’re uncomfortable with the name of his film. In fact, he’s not always comfortable about it himself.
“When I went through the immigration borders, the guy is like “what are you here for?” says Peck, incredibly perky for someone who has been promoting his film – scripted entirely from the work of writer James Baldwin – for three months. “I said “I’m promoting my film.” And he asked me – big smile on his face – “what’s the name of your film?”
Raoul Peck puts his hands to his face at the memory. “I Am Not Your Negro. And he gives me this big double take.”
We laugh. Not least because, as a white journalist, I found it uncomfortable to even ask where the screening room for his film was, a fact which he finds hilarious.
“I know that journalists have a problem even saying the word. But let’s have a true, true conversation. Why are we afraid of words? Because they’re loaded. But why are they loaded? Because there’s so much misunderstanding between everybody. It’s like being in a family: there are certain things you won’t say, because if you do, everything will come crashing down. But at what point do you have that necessary conversation?”
Peck doesn’t see the point of mincing his words. The Haitian filmmaker is 64 this year, and before he turned ten, had already lived under two dictatorships: the first in Haiti, and the second in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His films are stridently political, and intentionally challenging: his 2005 film Sometimes in April detailed the Rwandan genocide while Murder in Pacot followed a Haitian couple after the 2010 earthquake.
Peck’s intention slowly becomes clear: this is not a biopic about the writer James Baldwin. This is not a ‘civil rights movie’
By contrast, I Am Not Your Negro has a slickness and edge that you might be tempted to be cynical about. It’s voiced by Samuel L Jackson. It’s written by James Baldwin, someone too legendary, too talented, and too dead to argue back with. The poster – blocky white letters on a black background – already looks like something that would go up in a University bedroom. Kendrick Lamar and Michael Kiwanuka pepper the soundtrack, and every now and then, the film feels more like a music video than a documentary. But Peck isn’t playing around here, or letting anyone off the hook. He blends contemporary music with archive footage, speeches from Baldwin with 1950s advertising, flashes of the Selma marches in 1964 merged with the Ferguson riots exactly 50 years later. The result is a kaleidoscopic gut punch of yesterday and today, of here and of there. Peck’s intention slowly becomes clear: this is not a biopic about the writer James Baldwin. This is not a “civil rights movie”. This is someone telling us that time is an infinite loop, and screaming at our inability to recognise that for ourselves.
“People forget where we came from,” says Peck in his Haitian-French accent. “We are not this element swimming in a huge sea of nonsense. We have a history. And we have to master that history to know it. You need to understand your country and what wars they were involved in, and what were the consequences of those wars.”
Peck’s mind works similarly to the way his film does – forever jumping from one thought to the other, but always finding something that links the two. He’s almost as quotable as his subject, and he bounces from poverty (“The West are living in a dream that they are better than everyone else, and that their wealth is hard-won and justified”) to Donald Trump (“he’s not just a jerk, he's not just sexist, he's dumb”), from capitalism to the Kardashians. He misses nothing, and seems to question every interaction he has. I ask him why he thinks the current generation of left-leaning liberals seem to be all talk and no action.
“I was interviewed by a TV journalist,” he answers, and I wonder if he has heard me correctly. “She had the camera, she had the mic, and she had her own makeup to do. Before, she would have five people on her team. And that’s rationalisation. And the purposes of rationalisation is not to make her work better, but for the company to spend less.
I cock my head, still unsure of how that answers my question. He proceeds to give me a potted history of the economic theory of rationalisation, and how forcing people to justify themselves in the workplace effects the risks they feel able to take. He recalls the Reagan days (“I recall, very vividly, his attack on academia – people were fired for being too critical”) and draws the line right to the present day.
“We have become totally intimidated. I call it intellectual gentrification. Where you have people from the left thinking “Well, you know, I earn money, I can enjoy it, I can go to Ibiza for a month, I’m still a lefty.” And they can still be academic. But now all those people do is to read the New York Times and write blogs.”
I squirm, guilty, knowing that I am the exact kind of lefty who reads the New York Times and writes blogs. I ask Peck with complete earnestness: what can I do? How do I start making the world better? How do I stop history repeating itself, the way he proves it does in I Am Not Your Negro?
“What you do is what you will learn to do step by step. The first step is to know your history. If you don’t know it, you don’t know what to do. You have to understand why we are here, right now in this situation. Then you will find in your own life that you will start somewhere. That’s what Baldwin says. History is not the past. It’s the present. There is not two, three or four sets of history. It’s the same, and we’re all linked by it. So you need to see what is your role in that history, and take responsibility for it. You are your history.”
As we leave, he reminds me again that the only thing keeping people from being their best selves is their continued failure to do their own homework. “You seem to be the only one doing yours,” I joke.
“Well!” he turns his hands up to the sky, and that’s it. Twenty minutes of capitalism, class, economics, race, and inequality boil down to a smile and a polite instruction to do your goddamn homework.