Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Filmmaker Raoul Peck on his James Baldwin documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’
If You Go …
What: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ at Academy Screenings
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Thursday, Dec. 29, Noon
How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Entrusted with an unfinished manuscript by the great American writer James Baldwin, documentarian Raoul Peck knew he had to make an extraordinary film worthy of the literary titan.
“When I got the rights and I got access to anything, everything, from Baldwin, it was a huge responsibility,” Peck said in a recent phone interview. “I felt like I cannot just make a film, it has to be a special film. It needed to be the whole Baldwin, the ultimate Baldwin vision. So I took time to find the right approach.”
He took about a decade to complete what would become “I Am Not Your Negro,” which screens Thursday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. It’s an urgent and gripping film essay about race in America through Baldwin’s eyes. Peck considered countless ways into the story — even working for a time on a narrative film — before settling on this unconventional docu-essay meditation.
The jumping-off point of “I Am Not Your Negro” is his unfinished book project, “Remember This House,” which is read in the film by the actor Samuel L. Jackson. The book, written in the 1980s, was framed as a memoir about the civil rights struggle and Baldwin’s relationship with three of its slain leaders: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evars. Baldwin completed about 30 pages of the book before his death in 1987.
It’s not a traditional documentary about Baldwin’s life, but instead about his understanding of America as fundamentally based on racism and white supremacy.
At one point in the film, Baldwin looks into the camera and says, “I’m terrified of the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country.” This plea comes from a 1963 interview but speaks directly to 2016 and our fraught period in America. Peck thoughtfully frames the film in its current moment, juxtaposing Baldwin’s words at times with images of protests in Ferguson and photographs of young black men and women killed by police.
It’s an extraordinary piece of visual storytelling that also incorporates images from Hollywood, from lynchings and from segregationist rallies.
“I didn’t want to make a didactic film about philosophy,” Peck explained. “It had to be cool, it had to be poetic, it had to be hard — basically, all Baldwin.”
Peck struggled with how to bring Baldwin’s unpublished writing to the screen, he said. When he brought Jackson on board, he worked with him to do more than read these new words from Baldwin.
“What you need is an actor and a character,” the Haitian filmmaker said. “You need to create a character and, with the magic of cinema, that character becomes the person telling the story. That’s what I asked Samuel L. Jackson to do. I said, ‘I don’t need the voice of God narrating the story, you need to create character as you would do with a play and you have to go onstage and when you go onstage you can’t be reading the screenplay, you have to be the character.’”
The film comes at a time when much new and great art is responding to Baldwin. Just this year in the theater, we’ve seen Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Can I Get a Witness” and Anna Deveare Smith’s “Notes From the Field,” which played Aspen in the summer. Recent books responding to Baldwin have included Alain Mabanckou’s “Letter to Jimmy” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Baldwin has long loomed large in American culture and in discourse on race and film and literature and even sports. But there’s evidently a yearning for his moral clarity and unyielding voice to make sense of the forces that gave rise to both Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, as “I Am Not Your Negro” does.
“The film forces you to think about you as an individual,” Peck said. “What is your role in that story? What is your place in that history? And where do you go from here? Do we continue in denial? … You cannot evade it. You cannot be innocent after seeing it. So I hope that will help the conversation.”