“Until you know your history, you cannot fight”—a conversation with Raoul Peck

Author’s note: a version of this interview first appeared under the title ‘O Say Can You See’ in the Jan/Feb 2017 print edition of Film Comment Magazine, which is available for purchase here. Below is the full transcript of the interview.

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Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, Raoul Peck is one of Haiti’s few prominent film directors, and over the past three decades has been the primary exporter of Haitian cinema to the rest of the world. Operating in both fiction and documentary—though his work frequently muddies the boundaries between the two—Peck’s key areas of interest have been exploring the channelling of power from developed to developing societies, class struggle, and the impact of top-down political decision-making upon impoverished people. Some of his most powerful films include the esoteric, stylized Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990), which blends home movies, photographs, old newsreels, and contemporary interviews to create an absorbing portrait of Patrice Lumumba, the 36-year-old who became the first Prime Minister of independent Congo in 1960, but was assassinated months into his tenure; and Fatal Assistance (2013), a calmly presented yet palpably furious polemic which targets the purportedly well-meaning NGOs, aid organisations and celebrities who clamoured to help post-earthquake Haiti, but ultimately created a giant bureaucratic mess.

Peck’s latest film, the scorching I Am Not Your Negro, is the result of long-time immersion into the work of the late African-American author James Baldwin. It is inspired by a 1979 letter written by Baldwin to his literary agent describing a new undertaking: his final book, Remember This House, recounting the lives and successive assassinations of his activist friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr: the book was never written, and Baldwin died in 1987. Granted access to the full Baldwin estate, Peck weaves together a dizzying portrait of the author and his ideas (typically hyper-critical of white America’s racist instincts and capacity for self-delusion.) The disparate material is bound together by a narration from Samuel L. Jackson, who embodies Baldwin in hushed tones simultaneously solemn and propulsive.

Ashley Clark: Tell me about your introduction to Baldwin.

Raoul Peck: I started reading him when I was fifteen or sixteen. The Fire Next Time [a book of two essays first published in 1963] was a revelation for me. I did not fully understand everything, but it opened the door to a wide new world—in particular, things for which I didn’t have a name or an explanation, but suspected intuitively. Like, “who am I in the world, and why is there a difference between what I read everywhere and what I see everywhere?” I started traveling when I was eight—I moved from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having learned about Africa from John Ford or Tarzan films, it’s quite an awakening when you arrive in the real place. It was the same when I came to Europe and grew up with French literature, at school—that’s what we learned, and also sometimes American literature. There were not many authors [from a different perspective], besides Aime Cesaire, or Latin American authors like Alejo Carpentier, who wrote beautiful novels about Haiti. We were always reading our history through third and fifth characters in a book, we were never the main story. So, Baldwin is the first author to really break through that for me. I didn’t even feel it reading Richard Wright, he didn’t produce the same affect. I think the difference was between novel and essay. Baldwin’s essays were direct, with no filter. Baldwin stayed in my life—I would come back to his books when I felt like I had to reboot myself. Baldwin is always good to let you feel reality as it is again, in a time of confusion.

I know that this project has been in the works for a long time, so could you talk about the process of bringing it together with the blessing of the Baldwin estate?

Ten years ago, I thought, “Okay, what difficult project can I tackle?”, because most of my projects are very complicated. With Baldwin I said, “Well, maybe it’s the time now,” but without really knowing what film I would be able to make. His estate is known for not giving access; for being very, very strict. But when I contacted them, luckily for me, they responded pleasantly, right away. They invited me to come and see them, and I met Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin’s youngest sister, who has been his assistant from the age of 21. She went with him to Africa as a young woman and later also married an African man who was working in the U.S. She had seen my two films about Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo (Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, 1990; Lumumba, 2000) — for her, this work of mine meant something very important. After I spent some time there, they offered me everything, and were open to whatever approach I wanted to take. They let me find the film—it’s not the kind of project where you just try on the first idea you have. I wanted it to be elegant: the perfect Baldwin film. I was always not satisfied about what I saw about him. Even the biographies about him I feel are not up to the man he is and he was. And for me, the strength, the importance of this man had to be center stage. The question in the beginning was probably: how do I bring that out in the foreground?  How do I make sure that Baldwin’s work, and his mind, are totally up front and center.  

One day Gloria handed me a letter about the book on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers that Baldwin planned, but did not write. I felt, though, that [this book] was already written, but spread across his body of work. So, my job was to get the book together, stay close to his work, not use anything from me, and treat it as a huge puzzle that I had to assemble.

Can you speak about the challenges of threading together these reams of disparate material?

I had to start with the basics, which were the words. I spent much time indulging in all [Baldwin’s] books I had read throughout the years. When people say, “Oh, you took ten years to make the film,” I say, “no, it probably, it took 30 years to get all my old books and re-discover what I had underlined over the years!” It was to be a voyage, a tour of the past somehow, discovering along the way. After finishing what I called the “libretto” of this story I wanted to tell, using the letters, the story of the book that was not written, and other ingredients, I knew that I would use extensive segments of the film criticism that Baldwin wrote, which conjure a rich world of images and concepts. I put aside some images which came automatically to me, or that were dictated by the material itself, or cited by Baldwin. When he writes about John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, or Doris Day, I knew I would have to watch a number of these films again. A lot of them I already knew, but that was part of the search process.

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Presumably you were working on other projects at the same time?

Yes, I had to build the production around that. So, we would have time where my editor was working alone, because she had the blueprint.  She had the text from beginning to end. She had really fixed images that I had already chosen. Clips that I had already chosen. She had enough to work on, to be sequencing. And then, at one point, she would eventually stop, but the archivist would go on for two months looking for material. I would give them long lists. Sometimes I would re-read a Baldwin book and find three or two notes in the bottom of the page, and I would say, “could you please try to find what he’s talking about, because I don’t know that film.” It was really detective work — to find a name that he mentioned, and there’s no photo of that person and we have to try to find through other books, to call people. Because everything really had to be genuine. It could not just be theoretical. Although [the film] is a lot of different pieces, it just makes sense together. These links are historical, associative or emotional, but there is a reason why every part of the film is there. Whether it’s music, whether it’s the sound, or a photo, or a film. I gave myself the freedom to say, whatever would happen, I will use it. Whatever material I find, I will use it. My job is to make it fit. So, I was not saying was I going to do black and white only, or color or video only, or 35mm or photos only. It was literally everything I could find and use I would. I knew that it’s just a matter of time until you find the right approach, but you can’t define this style or define the film even before you’ve gone through all this. I think it’s rare to give yourself that kind of freedom.

It’s funny, it seems like it’s a luxury, but also you only get one shot at this archive, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

…and you can’t make a film that is not at the level of Baldwin That would be a shame of a film, to have those type of rights in your hands [and waste it]. You know, normally you get an option for a book or even a chapter of a book, but you never get the whole life – all the books, all the published, unpublished, private letters, et cetera.  When you are that privileged, you can’t just go and do a quick film. I knew that whatever it would take, I would take the time to make it. That’s why I produced it myself. I’ve come through this in one of my first films. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Lumumba film, the documentary?

I have.

So hat was also, at the time, a very, very original approach  I don’t think anybody had done that before. By the way, it’s used a lot in film school, in colleges, for many different subjects. For me, […Negro] was a way to come back to the freedom of creation and creativity that is very rare in what we do because there are so many constraints, including financial, including time. So, in this film, to be able to go all the way… and when I say all the way, I mean there’s not a single second in the film that was not worked and thought and re-tried multiple times until it was exactly what it should be. Sometimes you get tired and say: “the film is OK, it’s finished. You don’t need to work on this or that, people won’t notice it.” You give yourself ten thousand excuses. But this film?  I feel that this may be the only time I was able to go through to every step and moment of the film. There is nothing I would do differently today.

The film is structured around the killings of Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar. Now, you’ve made films about Lumumba, but I’m thinking about Thomas Sankara and Fred Hampton as well. To what extent is the story of the diaspora, at root, all about the killing of leaders, of resistance thwarted at key moments, moments when things are about to change…

For me, it’s an important layer. The film has several layers and several stories crossing. I’m sure what touched me the most is, first of all, that Baldwin made a connection between those three lives, and that he understood they were important, they were not just random killings. They were very precise killing, and also they were connected. I had throughout the years understood that what happened to most leaders, black leaders, and third world leaders in the 50s and then the 60s, is that they were killed. They were either killed or had to go into exile or some of them were bought. And I know that from the Congo, that’s exactly what happened. They killed Lumumba and they killed many leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. During the Civil Rights movement, it was the same, or the radical times, with the Black Panther leadership mostly were either killed, in prison, or became crazy, or would commit suicide. And the same people that had done that were the same people talking about, you know, rogue states or about non-democratic countries, et cetera, where they never gave them a chance, they never gave those countries a chance. Congo never had a chance: the only real free election was the Lumumba election.  So, the expiration and the assassination of these leaders is key.

By the way, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were killed when they really became dangerous. They understood that there shouldn’t be an only black agenda, which was a way to pin them down. They became dangerous when they understood that it was about class, that it wasn’t about race. Race was just hiding the more fundamental problems of class opposition and the next big campaign was not a campaign about race but about poverty, against poverty. And that’s when both leaders were intellectually, as Baldwin wrote, getting closer and closer. They really became dangerous for the system because they had surmounted, they had left the original positions that were assigned to them. Stay in the big “black” cause and be the angry black man and that’s what you are, and we assign you as such. These men understood that they were first and foremost men and they were universal, they were international. When King started talking against Vietnam, that’s where he became dangerous. And so, with regard to your question, what I am trying to tell a younger audience is: know your history. Because until you know your history, you cannot fight. You cannot understand what’s going on. You can’t really identify with the enemy, in particular in such a confusing time, where you have workers voting for a billionaire like Trump. It is totally insane, it doesn’t make sense.

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In the vein of much of your output, I Am Not Your Negro has a poetic, free-flowing quality. Can you talk about the importance of artistry in your work generally?

My luck somehow is that I came right after what we call “militant cinema”. I watched my elders making films where it was about the content, the message, but not so much of the art. The sound could be lousy, the images could be shaky or blurred, but it was about the message. I grew up learning from them, but at the same time, I knew you couldn’t go on like that and just make propaganda. I knew that I wanted to make films that had to be films first, create characters—then you can inject content, or political positions, or whatever, but that’s the ground rules. That’s why I never distinguish [categorically] between my documentary and narrative films because always believed they’re the same thing. It was about creating, creating a story, except that those stories are real. My narratives are always based off of true stories or true events or true acts. And my documentaries, I always try to find a way to tell them as if it were a narrative. Some of my other films will very often have a voice, even two. In Fatal Assistance there were two voices, for the dialogue, in order to create a text where someone tells the story or is witness to the story. This is how you can maybe get closer to people instead of doing some raw documentary or issue film about this and that. So, yes, that’s very important to me. I think Baldwin has also, within him, that element. Not only Baldwin, but people like Chris Marker. Those instruments I learned very early on.

Baldwin’s criticism of film and media is piercingly prescient [Author’s recommendation: Baldwin’s 1976 book of film criticism, “The Devil Finds Work]. He argues that the messages peddled by mass media are a central component of white America’s inability to confront many things about itself, its power structures and subjugation of minorities. There’s a breathtaking moment in your film, when you construct a montage of contemporary reality television, overlaid with the words of Baldwin talking about the frightening effects TV is having on the American public. And now a reality TV star is President.

Footage of reality TV is very difficult to get, quasi-impossible. The Apprentice would have been perfect in the film! Baldwin compared watching TV to taking narcotics, and he wrote that forty years ago when TV was not totally polluted. It speaks about the Trump generation. It’s what our media has become, it’s what the whole world has become. It’s the world of confusion, of superficiality, and people cannot make the difference between what is real, what is dream, what is illusion. And that’s a terrible, terrible, frightening thing. As long as we don’t confront those two levels of reality, again to quote Baldwin, “There won’t be any American dream.”

I have one final question for you. I have to ask about Samuel L. Jackson’s tremendous work. He brings an incredible dimension to the film. Can you elaborate on him coming in and the conversations you had about how he would deliver the voiceover?

I always refused the word “voiceover” or “narrator”.  If you do narrator or voiceover, you’re not making a film.  You’re making either press or formatted documentary, but you’re not making a creative documentary. When I came to the Baldwin film, I knew it was going to be key. Even the first person I recorded, I experimented with him until I had the right approach, and that’s what we used for the editing. For Samuel Jackson, I knew at the end, I would need somebody well-known to be at the level of Baldwin, that could help the film, and also a great actor. And I also knew I needed someone that has some sort of strict political credibility, which Samuel Jackson has in my eyes. People sometimes judge him by the films he does, but each time I have read an interview of him or his real-life attitude, I’ve always felt that he knows who he is, and I’ve always liked that. So, I had a very short list of people who could do that. I didn’t want to have somebody who might have been a great actor and well-known, but politically would be contrary to what the film means. The personal aspect was important for me. His people showed him a cut, and he said: yes.

The way I worked with him not to be a narrator, not to do a voiceover, but to work as you would for it theatrically: Take [Baldwin’s] words and make them yours. Don’t speak them if they don’t come from inside, from you. That means you have to create a character, you have to be Baldwin.  You cannot just see those texts from the outside. It cannot be your ad voice. It has to come really from the inside. You have to feel it. And once the actor understands that, that means that anything that he does is good, it’s great. The way he talks, the way he transmits the emotion of the moment, the beats of the silence – is it two beats, three beats? All this is part of the rhythm. You can’t invent that. That’s the same when I work with actors in a narrative. Every moment we do in rehearsal, we play with the text, we try stuff, we improvise, et cetera. Then, when the moment comes onset, you’re shooting, the actor is on his own. He’s the one giving it, and you just take. You can’t micromanage him. Your job is to bring him there and watch him there. You just take whatever he’s giving, and it was wonderful working with Samuel, because he got it very rapidly, he is very professional, and when we are recording, each time, he felt and I felt it if a particular sentence was not there. He knew it automatically, before even I could even say it, because we just felt it was not the right. It’s like music. When it’s just not the right note, you know it. You just feel it.

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