For a guy who just scored his first Oscar nomination, Raoul Peck, Haitian director of upcoming documentary I Am Not Your Negro, has more than awards on his mind: Donald Trump, social media, consumerism, journalism, responsible citizenship and the true meaning of democracy. Yet each of these dovetail perfectly with his film, which is essentially a video essay adapting an unfinished manuscript by essayist, novelist, playwright and social critic James Baldwin, titled Remember This House. Baldwin’s text recounts his personal experiences with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and Peck’s film takes on the monumental task of completing that work while also making contemporary connections with the Civil Rights Movement and the U.S.’s racist history.
The results of Peck’s efforts are, in a word, staggering. I Am Not Your Negro speaks to a specific moment in America’s past and invokes specific totems of yesteryear’s pop culture, but that moment continues today, when racial, ethnic, sexual and gender discrimination remain prevalent throughout every facet of American culture. The big question we must ask of Peck’s film, however, is not how it is relevant in 2017, but why? We must ask whether we, as a citizenry, are able to face up to the truth of our shared American ancestry, regardless of race.
Peck himself has concerns about how Americans connect to that dialogue, as Paste found out catching up with him on his press tour through Boston. The story of America has been, in his words, turned upside down.
Paste Magazine: What’s your hope for the movie with Oscar prestige backing it?
Raoul Peck: Well, the way I see it—and that’s the only way I, as a filmmaker, can see it, because otherwise I would not have made such a film, because you can only approach such a deep writer, and structurally important, eloquent personality by taking some sort of distance to the daily noise that is around us, day in, day out, permanently, this type of parasite static in your ears, in your brain, in front of your eyes. I felt that more than ten years ago. I didn’t just decide one day that I want to make a movie about Baldwin. Baldwin was a response to what I was feeling around me, and which is now almost to a caricatural level by this last election, and the debate, if we can call that debate, that is engulfing everybody, and not only in this country but elsewhere as well.
So those are situations, or contradictions, or fundamental flaws of the system that Baldwin had already identified 40, 50, 60 years ago. That’s what is totally incredible, you know: You can take any sentence in the film and feel it as powerfully as if it was written yesterday. This is what we are dealing with, and we lost track of the real perspective of our lives, of our story, of our narrative, of the history of this country. And the confusion is so huge that we also lost track of how to analyze it, how to take a step back and stop to think again. For me, the only way to go against that was to go back to my own fundamentals, like Baldwin. I read Baldwin very early in my life, and he never left me. He helped me structure my head and learn how to analyze my reality. He helped me know who I am.
And I’ve used him, all my life, to always come back to that, to find a safe place to think. That’s what we don’t have anymore. The young generation is bombarded everyday with so-called information, which is not information, which is just a different way, a massive way, to brainwash you, basically, to make of you the perfect consumer of everything, from Coca-Cola, to Twitter, to Facebook, to whatever you can pay [for]. This is what we are today, in a very exacerbated capitalistic development. We don’t know what’s up and down, what’s left and right. It’s a big bubble, big confusion. We don’t know what is, in fact, science, and what is just your point of view. They’re equal in the room, whether you’ve spent 40 years of your life speaking about ecological catastrophes or the misuse of resources, or the fact that half the world is dying of hunger, and that you have an incredible inequality, in particular in this country, the richest country in the world, where eight people have the same amount of wealth as more than 40 percent of the population.
Those are staggering numbers, and we just go on with our lives, and watch TV all day and tweet all day as though there is nothing else to do.
Paste: So for you, this project was about cutting through that noise and getting to a truth that we’re all—
Peck: To the fundamentals! Not to any sort of recipes, but to find the tools that you know to redefine yourself, or to even, for a lot of us, to define who you are. A lot of us just grew up living with a fake world, living with a fake image of themselves. Baldwin basically deconstructed that image. He not only deconstructed that image, but he shows you how it was constructed, and on what it was constructed. When he tells you, “We have been in a bloody history,” most of us forgot about that, that this so-called American dream was built on two genocides, and not only that, but on all the wars that have been waged throughout the continent and throughout the world for many very ambiguous reasons, even for petroleum exploitation. So all of this, it’s the same planet, and when you hear a president today speaking to the rest of the world, basically complaining about not being taken seriously…
Paste: Or not being popular enough.
Peck: ...or taking it back, that America has been abused and we want our money back—it’s the contrary! America has been living on the back of the whole world! If you take how much energy we consume, like 20 percent of the world’s energy is consumed in this country. Where do you think it comes from, and what are the sacrifices of those countries? In this country, and those countries as well, there is an elite taking advantage of a large majority of poor people. It’s like the story is upside down, and people are swallowing it. That’s the most incredible part of it.
Paste: It’s shocking that people are swallowing it, but that’s why Baldwin is so essential: He flips the story right-side up.
Peck: Exactly! He puts it on the right foot!
Right, right! Speaking of reframing narratives, I was struck by, in the film, Baldwin talking about reconciliation, about how the root of a black man’s hatred is rage, but the root of a white man’s hatred is terror, and I think that is so essential to understanding the Trumpian discourse: They fear they’re losing their country.
Peck: Yes. So you see how early Baldwin understood how the system functions, how we were torn apart, how we were made enemies of each other, because it was in the interest of the system, which was profiting off of the interests of the minorities, who were taking the profit out of it. That story is only continuing, and that’s what I hope that Baldwin will help us do for the present generation—to see through that, and to find a space where maybe a discussion will be possible, but a discussion on equal footing, meaning that we need to accept that we have in common the same bloody history, and we can’t deny it.
We can’t say it’s been a happy story. No. It started with a genocide, and it continued with another one. So how can you speak of a dream, like a puppet that they hang in front of your nose? You watch that puppet and hope that one day it will be [yours], and then you die before it happens. Only if you were lucky to be born in the right class, the one Donald Trump was born in, then of course you have a beautiful view of the world. You find that everybody else is an imbecile, because he doesn’t think like you, he doesn’t dress like you, he doesn’t have the same girl as you, etc. But I call that ignorance.
Paste: It is!
Peck: It’s pure ignorance. You go to school, you went to college, probably the best college, and this is what you learn? This is your view of the world? We are in the middle of a big swamp of ignorance that is taught by a lot of nonsense, propaganda, absurdity, amalgams. I have a hard time listening to any speech. You feel like you want to stop the TV every two seconds to rephrase them, because it’s lie after lie, turning stuff upside down, and you can’t follow that. That’s the trap. I hope journalists find a way to get out of that trap, because [Trump]’s going to keep us busy for a long time. Every single sentence he says, you’re busy in your head, saying, “Oh my god, this is so false…oh my god, this is so ignorant…oh my god, this is exactly the contrary of the truth.” And by the time you can find a response to that, he’s already jumped on another topic.
Paste: And you can’t keep up.
Peck: And you can’t keep up.
The worst part is that you know that X percent of what he says is not true, but then you also know that there are things he says that are true, but you never know because he flip flops all the time.
Peck: Yeah. But he’s even more sophisticated now. In the same sentence, he’ll say something in one direction, take it back in the next sentence, and take it back again in the next, so wherever you are, or whoever you are, you feel that he said something you believe in, and then you fail to see that he said the contrary as well. So it’s basically multiple choice: Pick the part of my answers that fit you, you know? And that’s crazy. Nothing sticks, nothing makes sense, nothing can create a real discussion.
Paste: You said that we need to have a discussion—how do you do that? How do you bring people from the other side to the table?
Peck: Baldwin says a very important thing in the film. He asks of us to face reality. He doesn’t give you any recipe. He tells you that you are part of the story whether you like it or not, whether you see it or not. It’s up to you, the viewer, the audience, to face it, and stop lying to yourselves that this is exterior to you or who you are. Face it, because if you don’t face it, you will go down with the whole country on that particular path.
I have no immediate response to that, other than it’s the responsibility of each one of us. The film speaks to you very intimately, very personally. I think that’s the thing I’ve been experiencing since the movie started to be seen, is that people feel personally engaged. You are somehow obliged to give, at least even for yourself, secretly to yourself, your own response. It addresses very specific moments in your life, very specific items that you went through, whether you are black or white, and it tells you on what side you may have been, consciously or unconsciously. What you do with it, it will be your problem.
But one thing that you cannot do is to put your head under the carpet and say that it doesn’t exist, because it will beat you at some point. You are part of this whole big history. We should learn not to be pure and perfect consumers, because that’s what we became as well. We consume democracy. It is something you buy every four years through your ballot, and by the way, a larger part of the population doesn’t even believe in it anymore, and so we feel that each time we do that, we’ve done our role as citizens and let the politicians do it. Democracy doesn’t work like this. You are part of it. The system is built not only so we have representatives, but so you watch what those representatives are doing with your vote.
We just lost eight years of Obama because we put out a ballot and we stopped working. We didn’t build the movement. We didn’t make sure Congress was doing its job. We got lazy, and we got lazy because our brains are so full of a lot of unnecessary stuff, and that’s building such a noise and such a cloud that you don’t have time to find a proper moment and a proper perspective.
Paste: It’s kind of like, “Well, we elected Obama twice, job done, racism is all over.”
Peck: And now you see the movement that is building, and I hope it will continue to build. But imagine if we put that at the service of Obama’s first year. We would be somewhere else today. That’s the reality of this country, that’s the reality of democracy. I come from a country that had a lot of dictatorships—and by the way, dictatorships that have been helped, financed, and kept by the United States of America. So I’ve learned the many faces of the power of this country, and that’s why I always question who you are, and what are you doing. I question your actions, and I see what’s happening in other parts of the world. It is this perspective that allows me to be critical of decisions that people who are elected democratically, but misuse their power, make. That’s part of being a real citizen: always questioning your leadership, not only about what it is doing in your own country, but what it is doing elsewhere. Because it is connected.
Paste: And maybe that’s why we need people like Baldwin, why we need more people to read Baldwin and think like Baldwin—so they can ask those questions.
Peck: Oh yes. And what I hope is that the movie will help people to come back to Baldwin, to read his books again, and also to come back to a sense of who we are and what we want for the future of this country, and as you say, to start a conversation, but a conversation on a real basis where everybody accepts this common, bloody history. And then we can have a real conversation.
Paste: It’s easier said than done, but I hope that people do that, because it’s the only way we can move on.
Peck: Well, listen, the key is, if you personally decide to react to that, you’re the first soldier, and I hope every single person decides that for himself or herself, whether black or white, whether woman or man. It’s like, “Well, I’ve seen that, I’ve heard this world, and I’m gonna read more of it, but somehow, I cannot be innocent anymore. I cannot say I didn’t know.” It’s like after you saw [horrors of] Auschwitz, you keep on going, “Yeah, but there might be an explanation for that…”
Or, “It can’t happen again.”
Peck: “It can’t happen again,” right, etc. No, no, that’s the reality of who we are. We can be angels, but we can also be monsters. And it’s about us deciding which one we are.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.