Interview

Meet Raoul Peck, Director of the Powerful New James Baldwin Documentary 'I Am Not Your Negro'

The filmmaker behind 'I Am Not Your Negro' discusses James Baldwin and the creative process behind his unconventional new documentary.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story. What can we do?”


In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many people have been asking themselves the same question that James Baldwin posed almost 30 years ago in his unfinished manuscript, Notes Toward Remember This House. The answers are to be found in Raoul Peck’s latest documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. But, they aren’t pretty.

I Am Not Your Negro showcases Baldwin at his best and brightest; from heartbreaking reflections on the assassinations of his three close friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers to searing critiques of America’s contradictory values and ideals.

At the same time, Peck burns just as brilliantly behind each thoughtful juxtaposition. Photographs of Black Lives Matter protesters are stitched alongside familiar Jerry Springer footage and saturated shots of Times Square. Clips from classic films like A Raisin in the Sun and The Imitation of Life are sandwiched between images of African-Americans being lynched and a montage that perfectly illustrates the monotony of apologetic politicians.

Raoul Peck, director of I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: © LYDIE / SIPA, all rights reserved.

With Baldwin’s words serving as the base of the film (and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration, the complementary glaze), Peck provides a deft layering of rich archival material to illuminate Baldwin’s visionary deconstruction of race and identity in America. This ambitious joint effort results in what Peck envisions to be the completion of Baldwin’s final book, Remember This House.

Gloria Baldwin, Baldwin's younger sister, she gave me those [manuscript] pages and said, ‘You should look at this. You might use it,’" Peck told me during a recent sit-down interview. “For a writer or filmmaker, it's just great to have a story clear, a project that was never made. Then you can say, ‘Wow, I'm going to make it.’ From the get-go, it was always about, ‘How can I bring Baldwin to the forefront?’ It was really a project where I wanted to use all my skills and make sure that it's a film that will stay.”

After discussing our identical surnames and respective family heritage, Peck and I sat down to discuss the 10-year process of making I Am Not Your Negro and Baldwin’s timeless thoughts on being Black in America.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you talk a bit about the process of layering throughout the film? Where did you begin?

Well, obviously, I had to begin with the words because the words were central. I had to make the original selections of these words. The notes from Remember This House were just one particular aspect that I found interesting, mainly the decision to lead the three lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and to create this relationship between those three and understand what they meant historically. I don't know of any instance where anybody tried to put Martin Luther King and Malcolm X together. Baldwin could do that.

Once you have that, the other story is, what is important today. You were talking about pop culture. One of the greatest critics of that is Baldwin and one of the greatest deconstructors of that is Baldwin. He did the whole analysis of the creation of the Black image, the role of Hollywood in our consciousness, in our fantasies, and the role of today's TV.

He tells you that the industry functions as a narcotic. This is exactly what reality TV today does to you. He wrote that 40 years ago, but the analysis is correct, still today. It's even worse today because now you have how many channels and how many screens? Twitter, Facebook, this and that. Where do you find the time to think? How do you build your opinion when you are submerged incessantly with information and data? By the way, not the best data. You get the minimum of substance. This is the strength of Baldwin analysis. That it's still totally functionable, that it's still totally efficient.

James Baldwin Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo Credit: © Bob Adelman, all rights reserved

One thing I really enjoyed in the film was how you were able to flesh out certain individuals who have achieved legendary or iconic statuses, like Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, and Sidney Poitier, and give them a more multi-dimensional context.

Well, what I did was just the choice of material, but that particular work was already done by Baldwin. Baldwin had written on Sidney Poitier, for example. He had written about Lorraine Hansberry as well. He was the contemporary of all those people, and even more, they were his friends.

Right.

When you're a friend of Baldwin, it's not just the world like this, it's really intimate. He had that support, and he supported them in times of hardship. It was a time when there weren't that many of them, and they knew each other, and they worked with each other. They called each other, they engaged together.

It's always great the way Baldwin wrote about that because it's always a mixture: part history lesson, part deconstruction, but also parts of very intimate thoughts and also of poetry. It's always a mixture of different aspects, which I like, which I try to do in all my films, to create a work of art. Baldwin knew how to do that. He knew how to be an intellectual, but at the same time, to be a human being. You can always understand him, no matter what your level of education is. He talks the talk of the street, with substance and eloquence. His eloquence is multifaceted.

Let’s talk about the decision process in terms of layering all the images and visuals for the piece. It wasn't necessarily in chronological order. There were the Black Lives Matter visuals folded in, as well as the photographs of Black people who’ve been killed more recently by police.

You have to see that once you sit in front of the finished film, you're talking over almost a ten years process. Which means every second of the film is a result of a tremendous amount of work. It's like a chess play where you can't touch it without dire consequences. It's an ongoing process because you can't predict where you will be after doing that edit. It will have a consequence, and you have to deal with that consequence, so it's always a back and forth. Sometimes you have to take it back because where it’s bringing you, you can't solve it.

The more you work on it, the more time you give yourself and the more you know what is essential and what is not. Your first idea, even though it's original, is great. But, after a while, you get used to it. You say to yourself, "Well, I can do better. I can go further than that." That's the process, and you need to go through that process.

Patrice Peck lives at the intersection of culture, technology, new media and #blackgirlmagic. When she’s not putting an end to #blacksalonproblems with her beauty services startup CRÈME, she’s pondering her next hairstyle and exploring New York City.

Follow her on Instagram at @speakpatrice.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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